Music Reviews | 2012

Fish and Bird | Every Whisper is a Shout Across the Void | Album Review | Fiddle Head Records | 01.01.12

The current line-up of Canada’s Fish and Bird sprung from the original duo of Taylor Ashton and Adam Iredale-Gray, whose two previous albums Fish and Bird (2007) and Left Brain Blues (2009) started the ball rolling for this young roots band with a distinctively contemporary edge.  Taking their name from a Tom Waits song, Fish and Bird release this their third album, arriving complete with more of the fuller sound that was previously explored in the duo’s second album, which now permanently incorporates guitar, banjo, fiddle, upright bass and drums, with the occasional bodhran to add that additional Celtic feel.  With nine original songs, Fish and Bird demonstrate a confident approach to acoustic music making with the album opener “Well Run Dry”, the complex rhythms of “Effigy”, which incidentally contains the lyric from which the album’s title derives, through to the atmospheric sounds of “Winnipeg”, one of the album’s highlights, each featuring the distinctively cracked vocal of Taylor Ashton.  Joining original members Ashton on banjo and acoustic guitar and Adam Iredale-Gray on fiddle and acoustic guitar, who also produces, are Ryan Boeur on both electric and acoustic guitars, Zoë Guigueno on upright bass who has since left the band and Ben Kelly on drums and bodhran.

Appalachia | Live | Album Review | Self Release | 02.01.12

To refer to this West Country roots music quartet as merely a bluegrass band would be an injustice.  The band combine a host of influences from old time and country blues to jazz and ragtime, albeit with a strong bluegrass flavour, providing a rich melting pot of styles on this live set, which comprises two discs, firstly an audio recording recorded live at the Withywood Centre in Bristol, coupled with a DVD featuring the same set filmed at the Assembly Rooms in Glastonbury.  With James Slater on guitar and harmonica, Richard Burley on guitar and mandolin, Danny Ward on guitar and banjo and Wisconsin’s Doug Hamilton on upright bass, there’s little doubt that these musicians have fun playing this material, which is precisely the point of it.  If you’re not going to have fun playing bluegrass then don’t play it.  Performing bluegrass standards such as “Rollin’ in My Sweet Baby’s Arms” and “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down”, blues classics such as “Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor” and “Deep River Blues” to contemporary favourites such as Steve Miller’s “The Joker” and Mickey Newbury’s “Baby Why You Been Gone So Long”, the band demonstrate the required aptitude for musical dexterity but excel in particular in their four-part harmony singing.  Individually, each member of this band is a singer-songwriter in his own right but for Appalachia, these musicians allow themselves to be satisfied with the seasoned music of yesterday, delivering a well-intentioned homage to the roots of the music from slightly further west.

Bo Weavil | Roots | EP Review | Self Release | 03.01.12

Recalling the music of the 1920s and 1930s, Manchester-based Bo Weavil take to authentic American roots music like ducks to water; it’s as if it were in their blood.  With an emphasis on Old Time and country blues styles, their influences are peppered with the occasional seasoning of Celtic heartbeat, cosmic vibe and reggae rhythm, creating a very distinctive contemporary slant on this timeless music.  Together for barely a year, with a couple of line-up adjustments during that time, Bo Weavil have settled into a quintet of musicians gathered from all over England with Mark Ross on guitar and lead vocals, Lee Webster on banjo, slide guitar and vocals, Dom Dudill on fiddle and vocals, Tommy Rushton on bass and Dave Layton on drums.  Garnering a steadily growing reputation as fine purveyors of American roots music, Bo Weavil take traditional songs and tunes from another era, such as “John Brown’s Dream”, “Arkansas Traveller” and “Barlow Knife” to provide a real tangible feel of rural folk music that is completely devoid of all the irritating crackles of pre-war vintage sides.  Leadbelly’s “Mother’s Blues”, is given some clear finger-style guitar picking, augmented by some high lonesome backing vocals courtesy of Charlotte Evans, while Cow Cow Davenport’s “Iceman” is transferred from the pianist’s trademark boogie-woogie arrangement to an almost jaunty foot-tapping slide guitar-led blues classic.  With a steadily growing list of gigs and festival appearances lined up for 2012, we might just be in for a treat both in terms of their live performances and hopefully a full length album.

Merry Hell | Blink… And You Miss It | Album Review | Mrs Casey Records | 14.01.12

Formed from the ashes of Nineties cult band The Tansads, this new eight-piece rootsy folk rock outfit release their debut album in the same manner as the ‘you know when you’ve been Tango’d’ ad; surprising, direct and immediately felt.  This exciting, no-nonsense approach to music making hits you immediately with a handful of crowd-pleasing anthems, thoughtful topical songs and one or two instantly melodic and memorable pop songs such as “One More Day”, guaranteed to bring a smile.  With a repertoire that’s geared towards live performance, these studio selections have successfully captured that sort of immediacy.  While “The Crooked Man” provides a hard rock edge with a strong message that will no doubt resonate loud and clear in this current diabolical economic climate, “Rosanna’s Song” and “The Butcher and the Vegan” take us in a different direction altogether with a couple of tender folk songs, the former a touching winter love song and the latter a modern ballad set in the unlikely setting of Burnham-on-Sea, all three songs from the pen of Virginia Kettle.  Fronted by Virginia’s brother-in-law Andrew Kettle whose distinctive voice provides the band with its gritty sound, the siblings-in-law are joined by brothers Bob and John (Virginia’s hubby) together with Lee Goulding on keyboards, Tim Howard on guitar, Andrew Dawson on bass and Phill Knight on drums.  Unfortunately, I blinked and missed this band at the Great British Folk Festival as they played in the next room to where I was sitting.  With a Spiral Earth Best Band nomination under their belt, I will endeavour not to make the same mistake again and will catch them at my earliest convenience.

Larkin Poe | Thick As Thieves | EP Review | Self Release | 08.01.12

In barely eighteen months Northern Sky has been fortunate enough to have taken delivery of no less than five EPs by arguably the best little band to have emerged from the States in the last ten years.  Easy to say, but difficult to pinpoint precisely where their appeal lies.  It’s a mixture of Rebecca and Megan Lovell’s flair for song writing for certain, maybe their command over their instruments, Rebecca’s guitar, mandolin and occasional fiddle playing, while Megan alternates between dobro and lap steel.  Could it be Rebecca’s charismatic, infectious personality and inimitable gutsy vocal or just the way the room lights up when these two Georgia peaches enter a room?  Whichever way you want to look at it, Larkin Poe is a force to be reckoned with and that’s for certain.  Ditching the seasonal theme (their first four EPs were entitled Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter) together with the cute little rosy-cheeked Mindy Lacefield caricatures, Thick As Thieves borrows a British phrase for the title of this their fifth EP and the sisters appear all grown up on the sleeve.  The Lovells continue to investigate that unidentifiable appeal, which is spreading like southern forest fires upon each visit to these shores.  Their journey began when Rebecca and Megan formed the band from the ashes of The Lovell Sisters, the family band that came to an end shortly after elder sister Jessica left to pursue other interests a couple of years ago. Since then the band have organically grown, transforming their sound from country roots/bluegrass basics to a toughened-up rockier outfit, largely due to Megan’s trademark electric lap steel, which is utilised to full effect, sparring effortlessly with Rick Lollar’s staggeringly dextrous guitar playing.  With all seven selections on the EP credited to both Rebecca and Megan, the co-written songs once again demonstrate a command over melody, from the soulfully anthemic “Play On” to the strangely burlesque “On the Fritz”, featuring Mace Hibbard’s soprano sax. Russian Roulette returns to the same sort of place that sent shivers scurrying up and down our backs in earlier songs such as “Burglary” and “Wrestling a Stranger”.  With regular drummer Chad Melton, Todd Parks on bass, Will Robertson on keyboards and Marlon Patton on percussion, Larkin Poe are once again confident and outstanding players in a highly populated musical genre, standing head and shoulders above the rest.  Catch them in a small venue while you can, they’ve already started playing the sort of venues frequented by Elvis Costello, literally.

Stephen Dale Petit | The BBC Sessions | Album Review | 333 Records | 16.01.12

An interesting collection of archive BBC recordings from Orange County-born blues guitarist Stephen Dale Petit recorded and aired between 2007-2009 for two of the UK’s most popular roots music radio shows, the Paul Jones Rhythm & Blues Show and the Bob Harris Show.  The collection of eleven studio takes that range from James Bracken’s “Steppin’ Out” and Deadric Malone’s “As the Years Go Passing By” to a handful of Petit originals, are interspersed with actual introductions by both presenters, together with some interviews.  Good for completists, the recording does include Jones reading out Petit’s forthcoming gigs, which is somewhat bewildering.  With a cover shot taken by none other than Patti Boyd, who I imagine knows a bit about guitarists, the BBC Sessions includes yet another guitar legend as Mick Taylor joins the March 2009 Paul Jones session and reprises his brilliant slide guitar work on Robert Johnson’s “Love in Vain”, memorably captured first time round on the classic Let It Bleed album, Taylor’s first appearance with the Rolling Stones way back in 1969.  Accompanied by three different line-ups for each of the three sessions, including totable performances by Laurent Mouflier on harmonica and Snake Davis on sax, the sessions provide a variety of blues styles from the brass section on the Steppin’ Out session to the acoustic “A Better Answer” from the Bob Harris session.  Probably one of the most interesting details of the recording other than the actual music is the Bob Harris interview which closes the album, where Petit reveals precisely where Clapton pinched his legendary “Layla” riff.   What a coincidence then that Mrs Layla herself took the cover shot.

Cam Penner | Gypsy Summer | Album Review | Self Release | 17.01.12

The fourth album release from Manitoba’s Cam Penner features ten self-penned and personal songs, each featuring Penner’s trademark gruff vocals and brooding guitar.  At times reminiscent of Neil Young’s Harvest Moon period, especially on the instantly engaging opener “Driftwood”, Penner offers a bolder sound in places from previous albums, yet maintains something of the rootsy style we’re all familiar with.  If “Cool Cool Nights” eases the listener in with its relaxed atmosphere, the contrasting tension created by the string arrangement on “Hour of Need” keeps us on the edge of our seats.  “My Lover & I” offers another side to Cam Penner, as does “Throw Your Hands Up”, each utilising a much heavier drum sound.  Self-produced and playing most of the instruments himself, Penner is joined by John Wood on guitar and piano, Tim Leacock on bass, baritone guitar and pedal steel and Jon May on drums with additional contributions from Laura Read on violin and Marcin Swoboda on viola.

NavaCross | NavaCross | Album Review | Hi4Head Records | 19.01.12

Formed in 2008, Essex-based NavaCross release their eponymous debut album with a generous sixteen original songs, each hand-made specifically to encourage a frenzy of communal foot tapping.  The five-piece band made up of Dean Baker on lead vocals, Noel Gander on guitar and harmonica, Mike Skinner on guitar and banjo, KC on percussion, harmonica and sax and Andy P on drums, create their distinct west coast influenced sound, which has already proved successful with festival audiences up and down the country over the last three years.  Recorded at St. FM Studios in the wonderfully names Burnham-on-Crouch, the album opens with the energy-driven “Ship Goes Down” and stays pretty much upbeat for the remainder of the abum.  While “Shine a Light” has all the sha-la-la’s necessary to keep an audience on their toes, the almost anthem-like “Lay Down” brings forth the band’s sensitive side.  There’s no apparent refuge from the band’s enthusiasm, which continues to maintain a predominantly exciting sound throughout the album, with “Monkey on My Back” being perhaps the defining moment, a song that showcases the band’s sound and to which you will no doubt find yourself returning.

Miranda Sykes and Rex Preston | Miranda Sykes and Rex Preston | Album Review | Self Release | 21.01.12

Co-produced by Rex Preston and Joe Rusby, Miranda Sykes and Rex’s self-titled debut album as a duo opens with a song written by Joe’s sister Kate, “Old Man Time”, which appeared on Rusby’s debut solo album way back in 1997.  With a delicate touch, Miranda bows her double bass while Rex embellishes each phrase with his dextrous command over the mandolin, bringing a new sound to our ears.  If at first our expectations were slightly suspicious as to precisely what a double bass/mandolin combination would sound like, our fears are quashed before the end of the opening song, which concludes with an arrangement reminiscent of Pachelbel’s baroque “Canon”.  That’s how well it works.  Miranda chooses wisely on this album, bringing new arrangements to such engaging contemporary British material as Karine Polwart’s “Only One Way”, which includes such memorable lines as ‘you can’t believe a man would lie through such nice teeth’, to our American songwriting cousins, Patty Griffin’s “Rain” and Slaid Cleaves “One Good Year”.  Swapping the giant four stringed instrument for a tiny one, Miranda gleefully strums the ukulele while revisiting “Sweet Pea/Mean to Me”, originally released on the Sweet Pea EP (2010).  It is however with Miranda’s almost ethereal vocal performance on Imogen Heap’s “Between Sheets” that makes the listener sit up and listen.  Taking lead vocals on a couple of songs, Rex shows his versatility with the traditional “A Kiss in the Morning Early” and the Ryan Roberts song “Love is Not a Flower”.  “4am” meanwhile reveals an understanding of his chosen instrument, with an inventive mandolin instrumental, which sleepily evokes the darkest hour just before dawn.  Meeting in 2009 when Miranda guested with Rex’s band the Scoville Units, the duo have since discovered a sublime musical empathy, which has proved to work tremendously well in both intimate live settings and now on record too.  With both musicians having busy schedules throughout the year in each of their respective projects, it is hoped that Miranda Sykes & Rex Preston will be followed up in due course with something equally appealling. 

Gretchen Peters | Hello Cruel World | Album Review | Scarlet Letter | 22.01.12

There’s little doubt that Gretchen Peters was put on this planet to write songs, something she has been doing prolifically and successfully for the best part of her adulthood, firstly for other artists and then during the last sixteen years for herself.  With nine albums to date, the New York-born songwriter continues to write from the heart with songs that have attracted the attention of many of the finest singers of our time including Etta James, Martina McBride, Trisha Yearwood, Neil Diamond and Faith Hill.  “Woman on the Wheel” is a pretty apt metaphor for Gretchen Peters’ recent personal life; losing a friend to suicide, the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and Nashville’s nightmarish floods, all of which affected the singer profoundly.  Sometimes life throws knives at us from all angles, all of which must be dodged, even if we are tied to a spinning wheel.  Hello Cruel World features eleven self-penned songs, including a couple of co-writes; “Saint Francis” with Tom Russell and “Camille” with Matraca Berg and Suzy Bogguss, a song that features some empathetic Miles Davis-esque muted trumpet accomaniment by Vinnie Ciesielski.  The Grammy nominated singer-songwriter is joined by fellow songwriter Rodney Crowell on “Dark Angel”, whose other role as an ordained minister came in useful when he joined Gretchen and long-time accompanist Barry Walsh in marriage in October 2011.  Surrounded by a superb supporting cast that also includes Will Kimbrough and Doug Lancio on guitars, Viktor Krauss on bass and John Gardner on drums, Hello Cruel World also features some fine vocals courtesy of Kim Richey, who provides the celestial Angel Choir on “Saint Francis”, while violinist Chris Carmichael goes on to further embellish some of the songs.  If Hello Cruel World is a dark album lyrically, then the musical arrangements serve to lighten the mood and leave we the listeners, with some measure of optimism.

Lincoln Durham | The Shovel vs the Howling Bones | Album Review | Rayburn  | 23.01.12

It does appear strange that the name of two beautiful cathedral cites in England should be associated with such full-blooded and authentic American music.  Lincoln Durham’s gritty vocal and determined guitar style dominates the eleven self-penned songs on this his debut full length album.  Following hot on the heels of his initial self-titled four song EP (2010), which contained “Living This Hard”, “Georgia Lee”, “How Does a Crow Fly” and “Reckoning Lament”, all of which appear once again here, the debut album elaborates on something we already know, that Durham is a force to be reckoned with.  With a voice that would equally suit the front person of a full-on rock band, Lincoln Durham’s appeal lies in the earthiness of his lyrics and the authenticity of his guitar style, surprising really, in view of the fact that Durham’s beginnings in music was as a promising fiddle player, winning the Texas State Youth Fiddle Championship at the tender age of ten.  The songs on The Shovel Vs The Howling Bones couldn’t be further from those initial musical endeavours.  “Georgia Lee” wouldn’t be out of place on one of Free’s early albums, with Durham performing with a vocal not dissimilar from Paul Rodgers.  Durham’s mentor Ray Wylie Hubbard seems to have identified a more suitable lineage, claiming that Durham comes from the same musical gene pool as Townes Van Zandt and Son House.  Listening to the blues-drenched and pulsating opener “Drifting Wood” through to the ode-to-the-road ballad “Trucker’s Love Song”, featuring some empathetic backing vocals by the flame-haired Texan singer Idgy Vaughan, it is apparent that each song is delivered with the same sort of gutsy approach of a seasoned bluesman. 

Matt Anderson | Coal Mining Blues | Album Review | Busted Flat | 24.01.12

There’s at least two sides to Matt Andersen, the Perth-Andover, New Brunswick-based bluesman; there’s the hard rocking sweaty showman who dominates the stage while delivering his trademark hot licks, but also the gentle giant with the soulful voice, the quality of which is demonstrated in some of his more sensitive material, such as the title song to this his seventh album to date, Coal Mining Blues.  Taking up the guitar at the early age of fourteen after even earlier spells on both trumpet and tuba, Andersen discovered the blues from where there was no return.  With a handful of original songs, either self-composed or co-written for the most part with producer Colin Linden, Coal Mining Blues demonstrates a clear understanding of the blues, with some tasty guitar licks on “Fired Up” and the gutsy album opener “I Don’t Want To Give In”, to the gospel influenced “Baby I’ll Be” and the stripped down to essentials “Make You Stay”.  Recorded at Levon Helm’s Studio in Woodstock, fellow Band-mate Garth Hudson makes an appearance on accordion on the beautiful “Home Sweet Home”.  With a couple of well-chosen covers, Blackie and the Rodeo Kings’ folksy “Willie’s Diamond Joe” and the old Charlie Rich anthem “Feel Like Going Home”, Coal Mining Blues touches the senses that blues albums seldom do.  This is due in no small part to the title song “Coal Mining Blues”, which holds a mirror up to the heroic coal miner in whose reflection on the cover shot we all consider our own mortality, which in turn is reflected in the song’s lyric ‘The man in the mirror looks nothing like me, just a weary reminder of what I used to be’.  A true and completely unpretentious album.

The James Low Western Front | Whiskey Farmer | Album Review | Union Made | 25.01.12

With a fresh country sound reminiscent of mid-period Gram Parsons and with more than a nod to that ether world that lies somewhere between Nashville and Bakersfield, Portland’s James Low has taken his country-infected sound to Jackpot!  Studios in order to record a whole bunch of songs that could easily have stretched to at least a couple of albums.  The eight self-penned songs that make up this the band’s first full length album Whiskey Farmer were specifically chosen for their ‘short story’ qualities.  The album not only showcases some well-crafted songs but also features a curious shot of James himself on the cover, parodying that iconic Michael Douglas pose from the Falling Down movie poster, which evokes the mood of the songs within.  The Whiskey Farmer is born.  With the memorable title song, which chronicles the trials and tribulations of life in rural mid-America, Whiskey Farmer helps to create an almost cinematic landscape for each of the subsequent songs, something that Low intends to supplement in due course with eight specially made videos for each of the songs.  One such video already exists showing our titular hero wandering the twilight city streets in “Thinking California”, searching for the sunshine, while at the same time trying to escape what appears to be a dead end life.  The whiskey is there to ease the pain as Low succinctly points out in “Words”.  It’s not all doom and gloom as one or two songs create an almost uplifting sense of optimism, such as the jaunty “Medicine Show”.  With James providing acoustic guitar and gentle vocals throughout, the Western Front comprise Tim Huggins on bass, Dave Camp on guitar and Joe Mengis on drums, with additional contributions from Rob Burger on pump organ, Ralph Huntley on piano, Lewi Longmire on both pump and Hammond organ, Paul Brainchild on pedal steel and dobro and Mike Coykendall on percussion, who also produces.

Karen Tweed | Essentially Invisible to the Eye | Album Review | May Monday Adventures | 27.01.12

Highly inventive solo accordion playing from one of the best players around.  Karen Tweed knows the instrument like the back of her hand and can play just about anything at the drop of a hat, which she often does.  The term musician’s musician is too often used, but in Karen’s case it’s right on the button.  Known in folk circles as an accompanist second to none, it’s with something like the Bruce Molsky produced Essentially Invisible To The Eye, Karen’s latest solo project, that we hear the genius of her playing.  Entirely instrumental albums are never on the top of this reviewer’s wish list but in this case an exception will be made.  Even on the timeless “Edelweiss” and “Que Sera Sera”, probably the most familiar melodies on the album, included in the Karine medley, Karen shows the beauty of the accordion and demonstrates what it is capable of in the right hands.  These tunes speak to us as if they were full of words; passionate, emotionally engaging and full of depth, I challenge anyone who enjoys music not to fully engage with the five lengthy pieces, each a girl’s name, on this gorgeous album.

Auction for the Promise Club | One | EP Review | Self Release | 12.02.12

This debut EP from three-piece pop/rock outfit Auction for the Promise Club, returns to basics with four guitar-driven songs, almost alluding to The Pixies’ famed tempo-changing precedent, one minute sweetly emotive then almost instantly imbued with a pounding sonic force that could wake the dead.  The four self-penned selections “Under China”, “Liquid”, “If” and “Dancer”, were recorded at Abbey Road Studios, demonstrating no small measure of confidence and belief in the band’s potential.  With Zoe’s cracked and fragile vocal rising effortlessly to the surface of a hard-edged rock canvas, the EP will no doubt continue to garner radio attention.  The Cornwall-based trio comprising siblings Zoe White Chambers on vocals and guitar, Toby White Chambers on drums and Perran Tremewan on guitar and keyboards, have already gained some considerable attention with support spots for the likes of Paolo Nutini and Martha Wainwright.  The four selections included here will no doubt serve the band well until their full length debut is launched, which judging by this EP, shouldn’t be too long.

Breabach | Bann | Album Review | Breabach Records | 13.02.12

The third album release by Scots quintet Breabach comes at the end of a year of success and change, with nominations at both the BBC2 Folk Awards and the Scots Trad Awards in the category of best band in both cases.  With a personnel re-shuffle that introduces into the fold multi-instrumentalist Megan Henderson on fiddle and piper James Mackenzie on both pipes and flute, the latter maintaining the band’s unique double bagpipe sound, Breabach keep their high standard of musicianship up, a standard that has already been captured on two previous releases, The Big Spree (2007) and The Desperate Battle Of The Birds (2010). Once again demonstrating a flair for both composition and arrangement, the band present eleven outstanding pieces either self-penned, borrowed from the tradition or borrowed from other significant writers.  With the bagpipes up front once again on such as “Gig Face”, apparently the alter-ego of Calum MacCrimmon and Donald’s “Rant”, which is probably the first time Jeannie Robertson and Dr Who have been coupled together in the history of folk music.  There’s also some beautifully rendered melodies, none more so than Duncan Chisholm’s charming Farley Bridge.  It’s not all instrumental pyrotechnics though, there’s also some well-structured songs such as Calum MacCrimmon’s autobiographical “Western Skies”, Ewan McPherson’s musical treatment of Edwin Muir’s poem Scotland 1941, renamed “Scotland’s Winter”, with a shared vocal courtesy of Ewan Robertson and Megan Henderson, together with Megan’s fine reading of Karine Polwart’s “Rivers Run”.  Effectively closing the album is the plaintive “M’Eudail, M’Eudail”, beautifully rendered in Gaelic, before tagging onto the end a radio edit of Scotland’s Winter.  All in all, a rich variety of sounds from a young band intent on making their mark on Scots music.

The Albion Band | The Vice of the People | Album Review | Powered Flight Music | 14.02.12

An impressive debut from a band that has been around for over forty years.  It may be seen as taking a bit of a liberty referring to this record as a debut album, but the fact remains, this is a completely new band, featuring half a dozen young musicians who might just as well have adopted a new name altogether.  The six members chose to continue the Albion Band tradition, now in its forty-first year, with complete approval of the band’s founder Ashley Hutchings who effectively handed over the governorship to his son Blair Dunlop.  With three distinctive lead voices up front including Horizon nominee Blair, who also plays guitar, Gavin Davenport who plays guitar, cittern and concertina and Katriona Gilmore who plays fiddle and mandolin, the band are equipped with a sound vocal front line, while the rhythm section comprises Tom Wright on drums and Tim Yates on bass, with Ben Trott completing the line-up, taking care of lead guitar duties.  Opening with an a cappella Kat Gilmore original, “A Quarter Hour of Fame”, which alludes to Andy Warhol’s oft-quoted expression, that we all will have our fifteen minutes in the limelight, the album sets out its statement of intent, that their fifteen minutes are here and oh boy they’re going to enjoy them.  Continuing with a blistering re-working of Richard Thompson’s iconic “Roll Over Vaughan Williams”, which appeared on the guitarist’s debut solo outing back in 1972, the band’s rendition captures the same sort of immediacy that managed to hook us all in way back then, many of us still around to remember with fondness.  One of the delights of this album is the fact that Katriona Gilmore’s voice is attached to a rock backing, which is precisely how some of us imagined it in the first place.  Kat’s habitual Fleetwood Mac allegiance seems to have stood her in good stead and the tiny tin lady now has the freedom to explore the rockier realms of her music.  Re-visiting older Albion material, we see the re-emergence of the old Francois Villon/Phil Beer stomper “Set Their Mouths to Twisting”, while Davenport and Gilmore provide some original material such as “Coalville”, “Thieves Song” and “How Many Miles To Babylon”.  Recorded in Sheffield with Tom Wright and Kat Gilmore slaving over the controls, The Vice Of The People hopefully demonstrates that it’s not about the name, the attachments or the legacy; it’s all about the music.  The newly formed Albion Band may have Warhol’s prophesised fifteen minutes in store for them, but on the other hand, they may just have another forty years to go and judging by the music on this album, I would hope the current band can share some of those years.

O’Hooley and Tidow | The Fragile | Album Review | No Masters | 15.02.12

Any new material from the songwriting partnership of Belinda O’Hooley and Heidi Tidow is always eagerly anticipated and with The Fragile there is no exception.  The adjective ‘fragile’ has an almost infinite significance and we take it that in this instance it is used as a collective noun.  The duo write about the fragile amongst us and that very fragility is emphasised in these delicate arrangements.  With subjects that range from the graceful winter robin and the last polar bear, whose very strength is challenged by the planet’s cruel intentions, to the fragility of life itself, no better exemplified than on the stunning “Mein Deern”, The Fragile explores the brittle and fracturus themes of our existence. Crafting their lyricism with complex string arrangements and fine instrumental accompaniment, Belinda and Heidi present a veritable opus, which not only serves as a collection of thoughtful themes and statements, but as highly accomplished pieces of musical composition; you can never second guess what’s around the corner in terms of sonic exploration.  Although the songs often borrow from much older poetry and traditional stories such as “Little Boy Blue” and “She Lived Beside the Anner”, there are one or two contemporary moments, such as the thoroughly engaging “A Daytrip”, which incorporates shades of Belinda and Heidi’s experiences working in care homes; a song for and about the very people the duo enjoy entertaining.  While “Pass It On” is a revisited and revitalised older song from Belinda’s earlier live repertoire, which in this new version is given a sort of Klezmer feel, Massive Attack’s “Teardrop” is given full a cappella treatment, a song originally learned from the Cocteau Twins Liz Frazer and more recently covered by both Newton Faulkner and Larkin Poe.  Jackie Oates provides a cameo vocal for a  suitable coda; an ode to Belinda and Heidi’s much loved cat Madgie in “Madgie in the Summerlands” which closes the album, providing an optimistic conclusion, suggesting that all is well in paradise.  This once again makes us aware of the fragility of life, even if some of us creatures are fortunate enough to get nine of them.  With contributions from Andy Cutting on accordion, Anna Esslemont on violin, label mate Jude Abbott on brass and Cormac Byrne on percussion, The Fragile joins an impressive body of work by one of the most unique duos on the acoustic/folk music scene today.  Listening through once again just now I can only conclude that it were real and it were great!

Amanda Shires | Carrying Lightning | Album Review | Silver Knife | 16.02.12

There’s something rather appealing about any album that starts with a merrily whistled chorus; it’s almost as if we are immediately looking on the bright side of life.  Swimmer is just one from a developing repertoire of instantly accessible songs from the pen of this native Texan, who has now relocated to the songwriting capitol of Nashville in order to further develop her craft.  Although Amanda Shires is known for her fiddle playing rather than her whistling skills, there’s also this steadily growing confidence in songwriting to consider, which is beginning to show great signs of potential.  With this second solo album following hot on the tail of her 2009 debut West Coast Timbers, which in turn following her duo album with Rod Picott Sew Your Heart With Wires from the same year, Amanda keeps to accessible melodies, while further investigating her penchant for writing ambiguous lyrics.  Once heard, those melodies appear to stick in the conscience, while the actual meaning of the songs often remains unclear.  With the one cover song, Barbara Keith’s “Detroit or Buffalo”, the remaining eleven self-penned songs include the outstanding “Ghostbird”, which should in a perfect world be an FM hit and the delicately beautiful “Sloe Gin”.  Not only gaining a reputation as a fine musician and songwriter, Amanda has also made her presence felt visually, appearing next to Gwyneth Paltrow in the film Country Strong, while also sidling up against Justin Townes Earle on the cover of his debut album.  Joined once again by a stable of fine musicians including Rod Picott, Chris Scruggs, David Henry and Neal Casal, Carrying Lighning serves as a fine example of Amanda Shires’ growing reputation on the alt-country/Americana scene.

Gren Bartley | Songs to Scythe Back the Overgrown | Album Review | Fellside | 17.02.12

What are the odds of waking up in the middle of the night and having your entire second solo album handed to you on a plate in a dream; from the songs and arrangements through to the album title and even cover artwork?  Well this is precisely what happened to singer/guitarist Gren Bartley one night last year.  Fellside Records producer Paul Adams suggests that Gren take more water with his whiskey in future.  Nevetheless, this small dose of eccentricity has furnished the Fellside catalogue with a stunning album that will no doubt further Gren’s reputation as a fine guitarist and extraordinarily good songwriter.  With a dozen ‘dreamed up’ songs and the one borrowed song, coincidentally from the pen of another dreamer, a dreamer from an earlier generation of songwriters, the incomparable Joni Mitchell with “The Last Time I Saw Richard”, Gren demonstrates a flair for complex guitar playing and inventive lyricism.  While Paul Adams concentrates on getting just the right sound for the guitar and nowhere more brilliantly captured than on the doom-laden “My Time Is Nearly Over”, which could quite easily have come from the pen of Blind Willie Johnson, with all the creaks and twangs in precisely the right place, the banjo-led “A Descent”, which includes a reference to the album’s title, suggests the heart of the album.  Wrapped in a sleeve depicting an illuminated midnight urban landscape, actually Tamworth in Staffordshire, we imagine the Manchester-based troubadour dreaming up his next venture.  The songs hover between American and English influences, but all have Gren’s identity stamped all over them, not unlike early Steve Tilston circa the An Acoustic Confusion period.  Co-produced by Bartley and Paul Adams and featuring guest appearances from Katriona Gilmore on fiddle and instantly recognisable background vocals, Andy Whittle on piano and harmonica and Robert Hallard providing some additional vocals, Gren’s ‘difficult second’ comes in with spectacular confidence.  And all from a dream about spilling milk on John McCusker’s foot, while turning down an offer to play in Kate Rusby’s band for some luctative dosh.  One wonders what Gren will dream up next.

Twilight Hotel | When the Wolves Go Blind | Album Review | Cavalier | 18.02.12

The third album from Winnipeg’s Brandy Zdan and Dave Quanbury, otherwise known as Twilight Hotel, is once again imbued with a seductive quality that effortlessly draws the listener in.  That seductive quality also hints at darker undertones, not unlike the sort of material associated with David Lynch movies.  The eleven original songs on When The Wolves Go Blind, jointly written for the main part by the duo, also suggests reflection and travel with much of the material actually written while touring their last album Highway Prayer; Mahogany Veneer chronicles some of those travels on the road.  The brooding feel exemplified in such songs as “The Darkness” and “Poor and Hungry” is seldom lifted to anything other than slightly less bleak than the others.  In places the twangy distorted guitar riffs pay homage to 1950s juke box records on “The Master” for instance.  Originally from Winnipeg, Canada but now relocated to Austin, Texas, the duo recorded the songs in Los Angeles with John Whynot (Lucinda Williams, Blue Rodeo) co-producing, who also plays keyboards, joined by Stephen Hodges (Tom Waits, Mavis Staples) on drums, Jeff Turmes on bass, banjo and brass and Andrew Lynch on flugelhorn.

Dave McGraw and Mandy Fer | Seed of a Pine | Album Review | Self Release | 19.02.12

Every now and then an album comes along that is so good, you just can’t get anything else done.  Then there’s the dilemma of not being able to get past track five because it deserves to be played over and over.  I have this problem at the moment with Dave McGraw and Mandy Fer’s first official collaboration album, which as far as problems go, isn’t such a bad one.  With an immediately warm and soothing feel to the record, the rich acoustic sound and perfectly pitched vocals courtesy of both singers, together with some fine electric guitar playing makes Seed Of A Pine essential listening.  Recorded in Chicago with Zach Goheen at the helm, the eleven self-penned songs, democratically selected from the pens of both Dave and Mandy, have been treated to some fine arrangements throughout, calling upon a handful of guests including Po’ Girl’s Allison Russell and Benny Sidelinger, JT and the Clouds’ Jeremy ‘JT Nero’ Lindsay and Chris Merrill, together with Andrew Lauher on drums, Jared Rabin on violin, Peter Mulvey on electric guitar and vocals and Nora Barton on cello.  The album also features some gorgeous artwork produced by the duo’s neighbour’s 8 year-old daughter Zia Kypta-Keith, which was inspired by the title song, some of which have been lovingly autographed by the young artist in the Flagstaff area of Arizona.  While “Serotiny (May Our Music)” and the title song “Seed of a Pine” both utilise infectious electric guitar riffs throughout and “Forget the Diamonds” and “Golden Grey” showcase some of the most delicious harmonies to have reached this reviewer’s ears thus far, Seed Of A Pine is destined to be the catalyst that will inevitably see this duo reach these shores in the not too distant future.

Jill Hepburn | The Lantern Has Fallen | Album Review | Self Release | 20.02.12

Falkirk singer-songwriter Jill Hepburn follows her debut album Snowflake with a further eight self-penned songs, each of which are treated to a fine banjo accompaniment.  Progressing from her regular appearances on Edinburgh’s famed Out of the Bedroom songwriter’s nights, Jill is now enjoying the recognition she rightly deserves with highly original songs that border folk/nu folk territory.  Opening with the song that was intended as album’s original title, which was eventually changed to The Lantern Has Fallen, “Footprints” includes some authentic sounding gypsy violin courtesy of Kenny Brady, while the whimsical “I’m Gonna Write Me A Country Song”, demonstrates Jill’s wry sense of humour ‘Gonna write about nights on the porch, even though I live in a flat’ for instance.  With the one instrumental, “The Ragged Garland”, Jill’s second offering contains a collection of songs that demonstrate a simplicity in style, while at the same time are imbued with a curious depth, the lyrics and melodies of which tend to stay with you long after the album has finished playing through.  Co-produced by Jill and Martin Stephenson of the Daintees fame, who also plays guitar, the album includes further contributions from Kenny Brady on fiddle and mandolin, Alex Irvine on ukulele and Mark Lough on guitar, harmonium and backing vocals.

Grassoline | Mountain and Grave | Album Review | Self Release | 21.02.12

With Dylanesque vocals and an instantly recognisable bluegrass sound, Chesterfield’s four-piece acoustic band Grassoline (great name) present their debut mini-album, which reflects some of the songs from the band’s current stage repertoire.  Falling easily within the Folk and Americana sphere, with their distinctively youthful ‘newgrass’ sound, the six songs show a band in its infancy, yet demonstrates at the same time early signs of potential.  With their guitar, fiddle, mandolin and double bass ground, Grassoline’s sound is already showing signs of a tightness that will stand them in good stead as their material develops.  Recorded live off the floor in just one afternoon at Foundry Studios in Chesterfield, Mountain and Grave includes the standout “Out on the Air”, with its foot-tapping rhythm and memorable refrain.

Murray McLauchlan | Human Writes | Album Review | True North | 04.03.12

Soft-spoken Murray McLauchlan delivers some heartfelt songs with no small measure of warmth and tenderness on this his first solo album in six years. Something of a Canadian national treasure, McLauchlan has forty-years in music behind him, with no less than eleven Juno awards on his mantelpiece and several more nominations.  Upon hearing the clarity in his voice once again, we are invited into the songwriter’s world and are immediately reminded of his command over storytelling, with this collection of highly personal self-penned songs, some written with the help of songwriting collaborator Alan Rhody.  With songs such as the infectious “Painting Floors”, with its whistle and trombone duet and the almost surreal notion of painting yourself an exit door when you have painted yourself into a corner, you find a world that you don’t actually mind entering and being a part of.  The songs are mature and highly accomplished, such as the piano-led “Run Away to Sea” and “Almost Constantly Confused”, both incorporating richly observed arrangements.  Joining McLauchlan on Human Writes are Victor Bateman on upright bass, Dennis Pendrith on electric bass, Burke Carroll on steel guitar and dobro and Duncan McLauchlan on valve trombone, while McLauchlan does the rest, either on piano or on his handmade 1938 acoustic, apparently chosen for its soulfully haunting sound.

Simian Ghost | Youth | Album Review | Heist | 05.03.12

Second record from Sweden’s Simian Ghost with singer-songwriter Sebastian Arnström once again at the helm.  Once associated more with the visual arts and production, Arnström has taken his musical development further with this trio that includes brother Erik Klinga on drums and Mathias Zachrisson on guitar.  Combining electronic music with guitar based compositions, the trio have an instantly accessible pop sound on songs such as “Curtain Call”, “Crystalline Lovers Mind” and the stylish “Wolf Girl”.  If the trio’s first outing Infinite Traffic Everywhere garnered some enthusiasm and critical acclaim, then this second helping has every chance of gaining the public support they deserve, especially with songs such as “Automation” and “The Capitol”.

The Proposition | King Snake Devil Shake | Album Review | Cowboy Town | 06.03.12

Norfolk-based trio The Proposition create a distinct skiffle take on British Americana, with the simple to understand ethos of performing highly energetic acoustic folk music from a mature standpoint.  You feel these three musicians have been around for a while.  Following their debut Dirt Tracks EP (2011), the band’s first full length album expands upon those four taster songs; “Lovers’ Leap”, “Mr Foolish”, “24th & Vicksburg” and “Don’t Let Me In”, with a further nine songs each imbued with the same sort of fiery ardour and energetic drive of the trio’s initial release.  Incorporating a wry sense of humour on the pulsating “Resurrection Day”, The Proposition create a gospel-inflected party atmosphere with everyone getting in on the act, while the rockabilly stomper Levon returns to some heavily reverberated vocals reminiscent of the juke box hits of the 1950s Southern States.  Produced in collaboration with Nick Brine, King Snake Devil Shake features the trio of Simon Middleton on guitar and mandolin, Nigel Orme on bass and banjo and Steve Clark on drums, keyboards and dobro, each of whom appear to be having a ball with their music.

State of the Union | State of the Union | Album Review | Reveal | 07.03.12

Recorded in just one and a half days, the ten songs and one instrumental on State Of The Union combine the talents of two remarkable singer-songwriter/guitarists from both sides of the Atlantic.  Now based in the Cambridge area, the Statesboro-born Georgia blues guitar picker Brooks Williams joins Cambridge native Boo Hewerdine (London-born, but moved to Cambridge as a child), to explore some authentically sounding country blues and period standards, yet writing each of the selections themselves.  With the one arrangement of a traditional song “Peg and Awl”, the only other non-original song on the album is the surprising cover of the Pet Shop Boys’ “Rent”; for the most part though, these are new songs.  Fusing two distinctly different approaches to guitar playing, the duo meet somewhere in the middle, delivering some of the tastiest acoustic sounds from what is essentially a domestic environment, especially on the infectious “23 Skidoo”, co written with producer Mark Freegard.  The resulting sound is pretty much what you would expect to hear if you’d invited the duo into your living room.  For those discerning ‘living room’ music fans, those who prefer to take home from gigs records that mirror what they’ve just heard with no additional trinkets, this will certainly not disappoint.  Williams succinctly tells of his new homeland in “Union Jack”, “Born in the land of Willie McTell, now I hear the swinging of the old Bow Bells” while Hewerdine explores the exotic in the serenading “Cicadas”.  “Sweet Honey in the Rock” will be familiar to anyone fortunate enough to have caught any of the Drever, McCusker, Woomble roadshow concerts in recent years, for which Hewerdine provided much of the support and where the song became an audience favourite.

Bard | The Springtime Fool | Album Review | Woodburner Record | 10.03.12

Fresh and interesting folk sounds from London-born singer-songwriter Theo Bard and the band named after him.  With eleven distinctively sounding self-penned songs, incorporating Ewan Bleach’s prominent clarinet and Louisa Jones’ accordion flurries that effectively give Bard their unique sound, The Springtime Fool blends together a seamless fusion of traditional, Celtic and gypsy jazz influences, peppered with a contemporary sensibility.  With the rhythm section comprising Nick Owen on drums and Jay Darwish on bass, Bard present something refreshingly new and different to tease and nourish our folk music palate, from the jazz inflected “Late Afternoon”, the curious “Peace of Mind” to the lyrical grandeur of the title song “The Springtime Fool”.

Bap Kennedy | The Sailor’s Revenge | Album Review | Proper | 11.03.12

Produced by Mark Knopfler at the British Grove Studios in London, Bap Kennedy’s fifth solo studio album features eleven mature self-penned songs that are both well-crafted and at once immediately accessible.  With a rich acoustic base, helped along by some of the industry’s best; Jerry Douglas on lap steel and dobro, Michael McGoldrick on flutes, whistles and pipes, John McCusker on fiddle and cittern and Knopfler’s fellow Dire Straits luminary Guy Fletcher on keyboards, The Sailor’s Revenge has quality written all over it.  Celtic sounding in places, especially on “Working Man”, the former Energy Orchard frontman continues to explore his musical roots with a keen eye on detail.  The touching Jimmy Sanchez looks at the plight of the youngest of the Chilean miners trapped below the ground, who accepts the notion that God wanted him to stay down there, therefore he must change his ways if successfully rescued.  A poignant thought.

Babajack | Rooster | Album Review | KrossBorder Rekords | 12.03.12

The highly percussive blues of Malvern-based trio Babajack comes over as a richly observed and authentic sound, rooted in the old time rural blues of Leadbelly, Charley Patton and Robert Johnson, whose portrait can be seen dominating the parlour featured in the sepia inlay booklet photographs.  The ten songs and one instrumental however are not from the pre-war Southern States of Mississippi or Louisiana but are surprisingly Tate/Steger originals with the one arrangement of a traditional song previously arranged by both Leadbelly and Led Zeppelin, “Gallows Pole”.  The songs cover contemporary themes such as the recent riots on UK streets in “Money’s All Gone to World” influences such as the African-inspired “Skin and Bone”.  Featuring Trevor Steger’s homemade winebox guitars and Becky Tate’s equally homemade cahon, Rooster showcases much of what Babajack are capable of live, with their instantly engaging and exciting brand of blues together with no small measure of rhythm.  The duo are joined by Marc Miletitch on double bass, adding that all important bottom end to their already unique sound.

Angela Perley | Fireside | EP Review | Vital Music | 12.03.12

Columbia, Ohio-based Angela Perley releases her third EP in a proposed series of four, with the band she formed in 2009, The Howlin’ Moons.  The five country-flavoured originals included on Fireside demonstrate a confident approach to song writing, with songs ranging from the radio-friendly “I Like You Fine”, the harmonica driven “Come on Home” to the Neil Young inspired title song.  Eloquently describing her music as ‘like a kiss being blown off a freight train on muddy tracks’ Angela has an earthy grounding in cross genre alt country, imbued with the spirit of Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn, but with a tangible contemporary spark.  Produced by Fred Blitzer, Fireside also features some fine organ and keyboard work courtesy of Kevin Patrick Sweeney, joining the remainder of the Howlin’ Moons that features Chris Connor on guitars, Billy Zehnal on bass and Steve Rupp on drums.

Aly Cook | Brand New Day | Album Review | Futures Entertainment | 12.03.12

Brand New Day is a good solid country-inflected album by one of New Zealand’s most successful independent artists.  Aly Cook presents eight co-written songs, for the most part co-written with producer Alan Jansson, with the one song Country Storm written with David Erik.  Soulful in places, especially on the album’s closer “Laughing in Silence”, the album demonstrates Aly’s penchant for crafting radio friendly pop tunes such as “The River” and “Spend It”, the first single from the album.  Helped by a team of fine players including Steve Robinson on keyboards and mandolin, James Pinker on drums, Janek Croydon on pedal steel and Harmon Green on upright bass, Brand New Day also features Aly’s assured left handed guitar throughout.

Bram Taylor | Jokers and Rogues | Album Review | Fellside | 18.03.12

Bram Taylor’s tenth album on Fellside keeps pretty much to the sort of material that has fed the standard ‘singer/entertainer’ repertoire over the years; songs that keep the sadly diminishing ‘folk club’ audiences happy.  Chorus songs such as Pete Abbott’s “Windy Harbour”, Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” and Nanci Griffith’s “Sing” sit equally with traditional favourites such as “Peggy Gordon” and “The Water is Wide”.  Taylor also reminds us of the lesser known songwriters relatively speaking, such as Chester songwriters Mark Whooley and Nick Mitchell with their song “No Ladders That Tall” and Huw Williams who’s “Rosemary’s Sister” gets a fresh airing.  Filling out the sound on Jokers And Rogues are Elbow Jane’s Kevin Byrne on keyboards, Wendy Weatherby on cello and Bob Hallard on guitar with Linda Adams on concertina and banjo, and harmony vocals.

Straylings | Entertainment on Foreign Grounds | Album Review | Deadpan Records | 19.03.12

Bahraini/Austrian singer-songwriter Dana Zeera and London-born guitarist Oliver Drake, collectively known as Straylings, release their debut full length album a good four years after their first tentative steps into recording with the release of the Straylings EP in 2008.  Two songs from that four track EP reappear here, along with nine other original songs.  Distorted in places, both in the vocals department as well as the sneering guitar licks, Entertainment On Foreign Grounds suffers slightly from a lack of variety, with a succession of similar sounding indie anthems.  The piano-led “Marie and the Dusty Lands” does offer something slightly different with a brooding ballad before the guitar cranks up again.  Co-produced by Dana’s New York-based brother Mishal Zeera, the album also sees contributions from Rudyard Burley on bass, Patrick Durkan, Ben Woollacott and Julian Fenton sharing the drum duties and Sarah Gill on cello.

Idle Hands | Ready For Business | Album Review | Bone Idle | 21.03.12

A generous sixteen track album packed with original blues numbers from four-piece Chesterfield-based outfit Idle Hands.  Although this band boasts the classic band format of guitar, bass, drums and harp, there’s a diverse range of styles involved, incorporating quite a lot of acoustic guitar, whether tuned for the same drone-like qualities that Jimmy Page strove for on those early Led Zeppelin albums, exemplified here on “The Truth” and “Come Share the Blues”, or whether for sensitivity on ballads such as “When Shadows Fall” and the soulful “Take a Closer Look”, the acoustic is always put to good use.  There’s also a nod towards the ragtime influence of Blind Blake on “Dirty Old Rag”, which demonstrates some fine picking courtesy of Dave Robinson.  For the most part though it’s full on driving electric blues from the outset with “Drive”, “I Get the Blame” and “A Place Like This”, with the Peter Green influenced “When I First Met Chicago” touching just the right sensory places as a good slow blues should.  Self-produced and mixed with the help of Paul Hopkinson, Ready For Business sees Phil Allen taking care of lead vocals and harp with Dave Robinson on guitar, Jamie Burns on bass and Paul Heydon on drums.

Rebecca De Winter | And Other Tales | Album Review | Self Release | 22.03.12

If you thought for a moment that one of Daphne Du Maurier’s leading characters had popped out from one of the writer’s classic novels to take up a singing career then you’d be half right.  Taking the name of Du Maurier’s eponymous heroine, this Bedford-born singer-songwriter presents eleven original songs co-written for the most part with sideman David Litchfield on this her debut album.  With occasional shades of Regina Spektor, Rebecca de Winter invites us into her own specific world of bewitching enchantment, suitably reflected in Cat Lane’s ethereal cover photography.  Formerly of indie-folk band Tinker Jack, Rebecca has finely tuned her own songwriting skills with her collaborative songwriting partnership on this Ru Cook/Nick Mailing-produced solo project, with some surprisingly commercially results including “Brother Sister” and “Shy Bride” as well as one or two uplifting moments such as “Higher Skies”.  With And Other Tales, we may just see Rebecca de Winter move into a different league than the one she has thus far been accustomed to.

Zoe Muth and the Lost High Rollers | Starlight Hotel | Album Review | Signature Sounds | 01.04.12

For a young singer-songwriter growing up in the Grunge capitol of 1980s Seattle, the Country Music bug came early to Zoe Muth, by way of an early interest in the ideals of Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and The Carter Family but with the vocal delivery of something closer to the likes of Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline.  With her band The Lost High Rollers, named after a lyric from Townes Van Zandt’s “No Lonesome Tune”, the ten songs on Starlight Hotel maintain a strong country flavour throughout, largely due to the fine pedal steel playing of Dave Harmonson, with sharp lyrics and accessible melodies.  Starting with an almost mariachi feel on the trumpet-led “I’ve Been Gone”, the song points us in the general direction of the Texas borders and keeps us pretty much in the Southern states throughout the record on songs like “New Mexico” and “Before the Night is Gone”.  The songs demonstrate a highly cinematic scope with references to work, railroad tracks and Elvis on the car radio and all that road going; a sense of the great American landscape.  Co-produced by Martin Feveyear, the album also features Dave Harmonson on guitar, Ethan Lawton on mandolin, Greg Nies on drums and Mike McDermott on bass with further contributions from Billy Joe Huels on trumpet and backing vocals courtesy of ‘The Starlings’ Joy Mills and Tom Parker.

Jim Moray | Skulk | Album Review | NIAG | 01.04.12

With this his fifth album to date, Jim Moray continues to impress with his skilful command over transforming old songs into something contemporary with highly interesting results.  Strangely, there’s always a sense of surprise at just how good Moray’s albums are, yet we should be used to it by now.  Skulk not only tackles traditional material such as “The Captain’s Apprentice” and “Horkstow Grange”, you know the song from which Ashley Hutchings’ second successful folk rock band acquired their name back in the late 1960s, but also with contemporary rock songs such as Lindsay Buckingham’s “Big Love”, which is complemented here by a sassy banjo accompaniment.  Anyone acquainted with Anais Mitchell’s ambitious folk opera Hadestown will no doubt be familiar with Justin Vernon’s version of “If It’s True”, which on Skulk features one of Moray’s finest vocal performances, not only here but anywhere in the singer’s entire canon.  Nic Jones has once again been respectfully plundered not only from his Penguin Eggs period with a fine and faithful interpretation of “Courting is a Pleasure” but also from the earlier Noah’s Arc Trap with Moray’s take on “The Golden Glove”, featuring background vocals and fiddle courtesy of younger sibling Jackie Oates.  With a strong supporting cast including Andy Cutting on accordion, BJ Cole on pedal steel and Will Pound on harmonica, the self-produced Skulk is possibly Moray’s finest album to date.

Jess Morgan | Aye Me | Album Review | Self Release | 01.04.12

Jess Morgan’s second full-length solo album and follow up to her excellent 2010 debut All Swell, once again showcases one of the most unique voices on the acoustic music scene today.  The Norwich-based singer-songwriter has two tricks up her sleeve; firstly her remarkably emotive yet slightly fragile voice and secondly her penchant for writing thoroughly engaging story songs such as “The Thompson Family Singers and I” and “A Musket of My Own”, both veritable novelettes of songs or simply modern folk songs for our time.  Curiously the album begins with a guitar instrumental “Heads of the Valley Road”, a sort of spiritually reflective moment before we embark on the lyrical journey ahead.  While songs as powerfully emotive as “Workhouse” demonstrate Jess’s flair for tugging at the heartstrings, the singer-songwriter’s humour shines through on both “Connecticut” and the almost whimsical “The Most of All”, featuring the widely lamented of all endangered species, the bespectacled library assistant (of which this reviewer is one!).  With Cambridge-based singer-songwriter Dan Wilde duetting on “The Result”, further contributions come courtesy of Tom Hartley Booth on piano, accordion, clarinet and glockenspiel and Edwin Ireland on cello and bass.

Bonnie Raitt | Slipstream | Album Review | Proper | 01.04.12

It’s hard to believe that Bonnie Raitt has been making records for over forty years now and with the release of this her nineteenth album, it equates to one every couple of years on average.  It’s actually seven years since the last Raitt album Souls Alike and on Slipstream the singer/guitarist returns to form with a dozen songs, some familiar, some not so.  Produced by Joe Henry, the album features some tight arrangements of songs such as Gerry Rafferty’s “Right Down the Line”, a couple of Dylan covers from the Time Out Of Mind period, “Million Miles” and “Standing in the Doorway”, both featuring Bill Frisell on guitar, together with just the one Raitt original, “Down to You”, co-written with guitarist George Marinelli.  Produced by Raitt, with four tracks produced by Joe Henry (Allen Toussaint, Solomon Burke), the flame-haired Queen of the slide guitar rides on the slipstream of those who have gone before, making such songs as the Joe Henry/Loudon Wainwright III co-write “You Can’t Fail Me Now” her very own.  Not just a return to form, but a welcomed return to form from one of our most cherished female performers.

Paul Brady | Dancer in the Fire | Album Review | Proper | 01.04.12

For anyone coming to the music of Paul Brady in the mid-eighties, especially anyone with a fondness for traditional music, the defection to pop music sort of mirrored albeit to a lesser extent, a similar attitude towards Dylan’s ‘electric’ phase at Newport, which was subsequently symbolised in the infamous ‘Judas’ heckle at the Manchester Free Trade Hall just a year later.  I had my own Judas rant at the time as I craved more of the likes of “Arthur McBride” and “The Lakes of Pontchartrain” instead of what I considered at the time to be dreary love songs.  The rather bewildering exodus from being a big fish in a small pond to mere plankton in a vast ocean, along with future liaisons with the likes of Eric Clapton and Tina Turner, only redeemed itself by the fact that some of Brady’s subsequent songs were rather good, such as “The Island” and “The Homes of Donegal”.  These along with a dozen other selections were re-issued on 1999’s Nobody Knows compilation, which has now been complemented with a new double retrospective Dancer In The Fire.  Only “Crazy Dreams” appears on both compilations, providing an almost ideal bedfellow to the earlier release.  With an informative booklet, this handsomely packaged retrospective is compiled from Brady’s own personal favourites including “Hard Station” and the title cut “Dancer in the Fire”.  Although the songs are indeed good, it’s the MOR style that prevents it from being on the player constantly.  At the risk of labouring the point, while simultaneously being branded a dyed-in-the-wool folkie, which I’m not, this reviewer will always have more of a fondness for “Paddy’s Green Shamrock Shore” and “I Am a Youth That’s Inclined to Ramble”, both included here, over “Believe in Me” and “Deep in Your Heart” any day of the week.

Cactus Blossoms | The Cactus Blossoms | Album Review | Self Release | 15.04.12

Some fine retro honky-tonking country in the spirit of Hank Williams, from brothers Jack Torrey and Page Burkum, both effectively fronting the Cactus Blossoms. Joined by veteran Minneapolis musicians Mike ‘Razz’ Russell on fiddle and Randy Broughton on guitar, the boys young and not so young are further joined by Liz Draper on double bass and between them create an authentic old time country roots feel.  Recorded at LittleBig Studios in Cannon Falls, Minnesota with Brent Sigmeth at the helm, this fine debut recalls music from a much missed era, while at the same time showcasing original songs that fit perfectly into the retro feel.  Listen to Jack Torrey’s immediately infectious “Adios Maria” and anything of your choosing recorded pre-1950 and spot the difference.  There’s a task.

Loudon Wainwright III | Older Than My Old Man Now | Album Review | Proper | 16.04.12

The question of how we managed to get to the ‘here and now’ is all the more prevalent to late Sixties musicians who challenged their bodies to excesses beyond our imagination.  Loudon Wainwright III was one of Bob Dylan’s ‘dumb ass kid brothers’ who survived that particular period, while the likes of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison didn’t.  Wainwright does a fair deal of soul searching on Older Than My Old Man Now, questioning how he has managed to live longer than his father, while reflecting on other aspects of his rocky family life.  Older Than My Old Man Now starts with some slick jazz guitar playing courtesy of John Scofield, while Wainwright provides a potted history of his life thus far.  While his contemporaries turf out long-winded biographies, the third generation hero of the Wainwright clan offers a succinct and honest account of his turbulent life and career.  If we count the brief mention of Wainwright’s grandfather in the title song, there are five generations covered on this album, with the most recent generation represented by Wainwright’s grandson Arcangelo (Martha’s son) in one of the liner photographs.  Wainwright has always chronicled his family in his songs, but on this album there’s a greater sense of mortality, obviously brought about by the occasion of Wainwright’s 64th birthday, which made him one year older than his dad upon his death in 1988.  There’s a beautifully written introduction to the title song, written by Wainwright’s father and recited by his son, clearly putting everything on this album into context.  Through all the soul searching, the guilt, the remorse and the pride, Wainwright’s sardonic humour is still very much intact, especially on songs like “I Remember Sex”, a duet with Dame Edna Everage, just one of several duets on the album, the others including daughter Lucy “All in the Family”, son Rufus “The Days That We Die”, Chris Smither “Somebody Else” and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott “Double Lifetime”.  With contributions from all the Wainwright clan, there’s a sad and noticeable absence of Kate McGarrigle who is represented with the inclusion of “Over the Hill”, a beautiful co-written song by the couple from an earlier period, featuring additional vocals by long time McGarrigle friend Chaim Tannenbaum and daughter Martha.  Wainwright goes on to point in the final line of the title song that he actually feels a sense of guilt for outliving Kate.  As a prelude to “Over the Hill”, there’s a short musical interlude featuring Rob Moose on violins, which could only be read as a tribute to Wainwright’s late ex-wife.  For a man of many words, no words seems to express so much more.   Throughout Older Than My Old Man Now the ageing process takes its toll on Wainwright as he talks about sex, his meds, his loves and losses, wives and children and the passage of time.  If this were to be Loudon’s final record, it would make a suitable epitaph.

Emma Black | Swimming in the Moon | Album Review | Cornflower Records | 17.04.12

This second studio album release by singer-songwriter Emma Black features thirteen original songs that explore matters of the heart, while raising a vivid awareness of the issues in the world around us.  Following her 2007 debut Where Dark Horses Roam and the digital only release Crossroad Radio Session (2010), this new album once again features Emma’s distinctive voice and assured songwriting.  Learning her craft in the tradition of the true British troubadour, by uprooting and busking the streets of European cities with a battered guitar and seeking out those who inspire and inform her music, Emma bears no resemblance to those singers who choose the quicker route via insipid TV talent shows and it shows in her honest and essentially pure music.  While Emma’s debut concentrated on the subject of love and relationships, Swimming In The Moon brings forth her more political side with songs ranging from the heartbreaking “Florence”, a song that comments on a flawed society who allows the elderly to die in poverty while we continue to play at war, the diet of lies we are fed daily by an uncaring government in the optimistic “Lies They’ve Told” to the tragic story of “Jack and Sally”, ordinary people battlescarred by everyday living, yet made endurable by the simple act of dancing; vivid stories that affect us all in one way or another.  While drawing empathy from those of us who are affected by these concerns, Emma continues to wear her heart on her skin with more songs of love and loss, including “Falling”, “Last Time Love”, “The Getaway” and the title song.  Emma’s love for the Blues is also apparent in “The Pauper”, which features some fine harmonica playing by Franny Eubank.  Joined by a trustworthy cast of musicians which includes Eimear Bradley on fiddle, Elizabeth Roberts on cello, co-producer Alan Lownes on piano, Alan Cook on pedal steel, dobro and mandolin, Rioghnach Connolly on whistle and flute, Anthony Haller on bass and Richard Young on drums, the songs are further embellished with some fine harmony singing courtesy of Maria Corrigan, Kirsty McGee, Johnny Bramwell and Rioghnach Connolly.  With a growing European following, Swimming In The Moon just might be the breakthrough record that Emma Black not only desires but deserves. 

Stacey Earle and Mark Stuart | Dedication | Album Review | Gearle Records | 18.04.12

Stacey Earle and Mark Stuart celebrate twenty years of music making with this the duo’s latest album Dedication, released on their own Gearle Records label.  Meeting back in 1991 at a songwriters open mic session, the two immediately found empathy in their playing and went on to match that empathy in their personal relationship, which resulted in their marriage a couple of years later; ‘love at first driinnngg’ as Stacey candidly reflects.  Since then, the duo have made several first rate albums, each demonstrating the duo’s credentials as engaging performers, superb harmony singers and clever guitar players; their distinctive guitar interplay is perfectly dovetailed together and is immediately recognisable.  With the ten self-penned songs and one delightful instrumental on Dedication, the duo reflect on what has been a heart-breaking couple of years for the both of them, with the loss of close family members and the resulting period of coping with the aftermath of such sad losses.  After the two year mourning process, both Stacey and Mark returned to the studio with a desire to put some of those feelings into song, each with a note of optimism.  With the acquisition of a pre-depression era Baldwin 1928 grand piano, a family heirloom handed down through generations, the duo composed most of the songs on this album, which has resulted in a slight change in style, which includes some interesting almost Beatle-esque melodic explorations such as the uplifting “Here Comes the Rain”, which in the title alone could be seen as a hybrid of Fab-Fourness.  While Stuart’s instantly accessible “Little Rock”, which appears twice on the album, the second being a radio edit, provides the album with a commercial gem, despite the thought provoking subject matter “The Flag” reveals a fragility seldom seen in Stacey’s songs thus far, with a moving almost spoken narrative in which Stacey describes the phone call that all military mothers dread.  As the recipient of that dreaded call in which she was told of the death of her son in Iraq, Stacey was blessed with a second call an hour later, which revealed it was all a mistake, a second call that other mothers sadly do not get.  There’s no hiding the sheer power of such personal and emotive writing, perfectly executed in this one song, which is complemented with Stuart’s “Broken Heart For You”, Stacey’s personal favourite song on the album, which once again reveals a subtle Beatles feel.  Co-produced by Stacey and Mark with a little help from their friend Michael Webb, the album also calls upon the services of Craig Wright on drums and Michael and Anna Webb on hand claps.  Dedication might not be considered part of the duo’s Americana canon, but a welcomed departure much in the same way as Emmylou Harris’s staggeringly good Wrecking Ball was her departure from her country catalogue. 

Hannah James and Sam Sweeney | State and Ancientry | Album Review | RootBeat Records | 19.04.12

Waiting in the wings to perform at the Gainsborough Folk Festival a good few years ago, I watched the very young Hannah James play an unfeasibly large accordion that almost completely obscured her tiny frame and I recognised immediately a burgeoning talent who was just getting to grips with her chosen instrument, while simultaneously exercising her vocal talents, both of which have now come to full fruition.  Elsewhere, a young Sam Sweeney would have been doing something equally inspiring with the fiddle, his chosen instrument.  A meeting sometime in the future was destined to happen, which later resulted in their nomination for the prestigeous Horizon Award at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards in 2010.   Cut to the present and Hannah and Sam present the follow up to their impressive debut Catches & Glees (2008) with an album of extraordinary dexterity, demonstrating precisely how musically versatile this duo have become, largely due to their exhaustive work in other outfits such as the celebrated Bellowhead, the Fay Hield Trio, Jon Boden and the Remnant Kings (Sam) and Lady Maisery, the Maddy Prior Trio and Hell Said the Duchess as well as also providing some astonishing footwork in the Demon Barber Roadshow (Hannah).  With a selection of songs and tunes ranging from the traditional William Taylor, the Jane Austen period hornpipe “Hole in the Wall”, composed in 1695 by Henry Purcell, to self-composed material such as Hannah’s “Wallaby/Harry’s Flowers” and Sam’s “Gallons of Cognac”, a tune bolted onto the end of “How Do You Do?”, the duo take command of their material throughout, which also includes an assured unaccompanied “There Was a Lady Lived” in the West, a song Hannah learned from the singing of Robert Cinnamond, the “Ballinderry Balladeer”.  With a handsomely packaged sepia sleeve designed by Elly Lucas, State And Ancientry has been entrusted into the more than capable hands of producer Andy Bell with Andy Seward handling the mastering, ensuring the music retains the magic of the two former Kerfuffle band mates’ live performances.  A few years on from that early first meeting with Hannah James and I am still waiting in the wings but this time not to follow her but to introduce her.  This will always be an infinitely more pleasurable and worthwhile pursuit.

Cera Impala and the New Prohibition | Higher Place | Album Review | BCB Records | 20.04.12

Everything you might expect from a ‘wild banjo-wielding mama’ and more.  Berlin-based Cera Impala puts a new slant on old timey mountain music with her hard driving clawhammer style banjo on this second album with her band The New Prohibition, the follow up to 2007’s Busted.  The trio comprise Jovanka von Wilsdorf on bass and Dirk Ronneburg on fiddle and guitar, while Impala alternates between banjo and guitar with her own very distinctive voice throughout.  There’s some familiar songs included here, such as the traditional “In the Pines”, “Cluck Old Hen” and “Orange Blossom Special”, which at one point bursts into The Flintstones theme tune adding even more fun to an already fun number, all imbued with an old time feel but treated to contemporary arrangements.  While Ronnenberg takes the lead on his own “Foggy Window Backup”, Impala shows her sensitive side with a couple of tender moments in “Whisky” and the bluesy album closer “Sweet Sue”.

Hillfolk Noir | Radio Hour | Album Review | Self Release | 22.04.12

Following hot on the tail of last year’s Skinny Mamma’s Revenge, the latest offering form Hillfolk Noir is created as an old-timey radio show, complete with airwave crackles, introductions and the occasional advert for ‘Wild Root Cream Oil’, reminiscent of the Who’s Sell Out album.  Fronted by Travis Ward on guitar and vocals, the Idaho-based band comprises Alison Ward on a variety of instruments from banjo to singing saw, Mike Waite on upright bass, Jared Goodpaster on percussion, Travis Swartz on the cool hooter and Shaun King on banjo and ‘clanker’, who together create an immediately entertaining sound.  Their ‘junkerdash’ music is a take on traditional mountain music, seemingly banging and clattering anything that comes to hand, a little like what the Brit’s christened ‘Skiffle’ in the 1950s, but with an authentic sounding nod towards their own old timey roots.  Highly entertaining, Hillfolk Noir who are no strangers to street corners busking for gas money have created a highly engaging hour of music.  The album is not only available in CD format and MP3, but also in ten inch vinyl resembling an authentic 1920s 78rpm disc.

Holly Taymar and Christopher Bilton | Never Winter Mind Part Two | EP Review | Self Release | 25.04.12

This second installment of Holly Taymar’s Never Winter Mind EP series, once again features a handful of self-penned songs, this time co-written with partner Chris Bilton, using his formal name for the first time on any of the York-based singer-songwriters records.  The half-dozen songs included find the duo in experimental mood, treating one or two of the arrangements to some sound effect wizardry, such as “Indian Sky”, with its Eastern flavour and “The French One”, with its vintage 78rpm crackly intro.  Holly continues to write melodic songs to suit her rich and effortlessly smooth voice, while at the same time rewarding each arrangment to some understated musical trimmings.  Recent gigs have seen the inclusion of the electric guitar for the first time, which at those gigs and on this EP, adds to the atmosphere that Holly and Chris endeavour to create.  A perfect companion piece to Part One

Miss Quincy | Like the Devil Does | Album Review | Self Release | 30.04.12

Canada’s Jodie Peck once again applies her deep red lipstick, pops on her familiar feathered trilby and slings her faithful electric Epiphone sunburst guitar over her shoulder and stands before her vintage microphone, assuming the role of her alter-ego Miss Quincy ready to deliver ten new songs, while teaming up with an all-female trio to hit the road and promote this her second solo album and follow up to Your Mama Don’t Like Me.  Blues-based at its core, Like The Devil Does is a cocktail of Juke Dive blues and sneering guitar licks, each complementing Miss Quincy’s inimitable vocals throughout.  While “Dirty Sunday”, “Going Down” and “Hurricane” each demonstrate her bluesy side, “Dawson City Line” proposes a more soulful side of Miss Quincy, featuring some fine banjo accompaniment courtesy of Tim Williams.  “Silent Movie” is one of the highlights of the album, which features some vintage upright piano accompaniment by Ron Cassat’s in the tradition of the sort of film score music before the ‘talkies’ came along.  The only non-original song on the album is a take on the old Nina Simone crooner “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl”, with its classic double entendre.  The Country-infused “Dangerous” has more kinship with “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” than anything else the Devil chooses to do.  Produced by Tim Williams in Calgary, Alberta, Like The Devil Does clearly indicates that Miss Quincy is no run of the mill singer-songwriter, but rather a compelling modern voice with a close connection with the past.

Rachel Harrington and the Knockouts | Rachel Harrington and the Knock Outs | Album Review | Continental Song City | 13.05.12

Rachel Harrington takes a slight detour from her established Americana path to deliver her first full-blown Honky Tonk record with her new all-female band The Knock Outs, featuring Rebecca Young on bass, Alisa Milner on fiddle, Aimee Tubbs on drums and Moe Provencher on guitar. The mission statement is clear from the start as “Makin’ Our House a Honky Tonk” reflects the cover close-up of the girl who wants to have fun.  Co-produced with Evan Brubaker, the songs fall halfway between the raw energy of bar-room Honky Tonk and mainstream Country, each maintaining Rachel’s flair for writing interesting lyrics with fine and instantly memorable melodies.  There’s some fun to be found in such songs as “Hippie in My House” and “Wedding Ring Vacation”, while “I’ll Show You Mine” brings out some sensual dance floor lyricism.  Rachel’s signature song “Sunshine Girl” is re-worked and re-named “Moonshine Boy” especially for the occasion. 

The Imagined Village | Bending the Dark | Album Review | ECC Records | 13.05.12

This third album release by the mighty Imagined Village comes along despite just about every imaginable obstacle thrown in its way; from family illness and personnel changes to all manner of disruptions to service, both unexpected and unrequired.  Afro Celt Sound System’s Simon Emmerson and Co are clearly unfazed by such inconveniences and have stared adversity in the face, bursting through the darkened clouds with a fine follow up to Empire And Love (2010) which features ten new recordings of songs new and old, each treated to the now familiar Imagined Village sound. Joining regular Village people, Eliza Carthy on fiddle, Martin Carthy on guitar, Ali Friend on bass, Andy Gangadeen on drums, Johnny Kalsi on dhol, tabla and percussion, Barney Morse Brown on cello, Sheema Mukherjee on sitar and Simon Richmond on keyboards and electronics, is young fiddle player and singer Jackie Oates, who is equally fuelled with the desire to help produce a rich tapestry of multicultural music, contributing a new and almost ethereal voice to the equation.  Once again the musicians create a rich mosaic of sound encompassing a variety of World influences, especially on the title track, which attempts to cover all corners, with its changing rhythms, Asian chanting, Western fiddle and Eastern sitar sparring as well as some well-produced drum workouts.  In the tradition of all good collectives, no one singer takes a prominent role, with each voice serving as another small part of the whole, whether it’s Jackie Oates providing the unaccompanied Captain’s Apprentice, learned from the singing of Kathryn Roberts, or Eliza Carthy singing alongside dad Martin on the sublime Nest, the latter allegedly popping into Ollie Knight’s studio to record his bit in between doing the dished in the family home next door.  The writing on Bending The Dark is pretty much new with one or two exceptions, including Eliza Carthy’s reading of the traditional “New York Trader” as well as incorporating a nod towards the “Raggle Taggle Gypsies” during her own allegorical “Sick Old Man”.  On the whole though, the Imagined Village creates another fine example of diversity over adversity, with the common goal achieved.  Highly recommended. 

Girlyman | Supernova | Album Review | Girlyman Inc | 13.05.12

The fifth studio album from the thoroughly entertaining Atlanta-based quartet Girlyman and the first to feature former Po’ Girl drummer JJ Jones.  After an extraordinarily good run as a successful three-piece tight harmony band, the band faced an unexpected turn of events as Doris Muramatsu was diagnosed with leukaemia in 2010.  With tour cancellations and rigorous hospital treatment and the support of fellow band mates Nate Borofsky and Tylan Greenstein, Doris’s cancer fortunately went into remission and the new four-piece Girlyman put down their thoughts, resulting in one of their most beautiful records to date.  With the title song providing the autobiographical heart of the album, the other dozen songs serve as empathetic bedfellows, all of which collectively resonate a feeling of uncertainty, helplessness and ultimately hope.  With the melodic Beatle-esque “Michelangelo” standing out as a fine example of what Girlyman are all about in terms of group cohesion, the album as a whole uplifts, sprinkles magic and warms the coldest of hearts.  With contributions from Indigo Girl Emma Saliers amongst others, Supernova is a beautiful addition to the band’s already exceptional recorded catalogue.

Urban Folk Quartet | Off Beaten Tracks | Album Review | Self Release | 13.05.12

Multi-influenced cross-genre music at its best, The Urban Folk Quartet stretch the boundaries further with their latest release Off Beaten Tracks. Following their self-titled 2010 debut, together with a stunning limited-edition live album, their second studio album is a mixture of the two, studio recordings of songs played on the road.  Recorded in the midst of their recent world tour, Off Beaten Tracks encompasses the spirit and energy of those live appearances with ten tightly arranged songs and tunes.  From the Latin rhythms of “Jaleo Bus/Up in the Air”, the immediately captivating reading of “Dink’s Song”, through to the utter inventiveness of “The Missing Jig”, Off Beaten Tracks demonstrates precisely how to take elements of various musical styles in order to create something tantalisingly refreshing and new.  Borne out of the bustling Birmingham scene, the quartet featuring Joe Broughton and Paloma Trigas on twin fiddles, Frank Moon on guitar and oud and last but by no means least Tom Chapman on percussion, are taking giant steps in order to further the potential of acoustic music.  With the material on this album, the Urban Folk Quartet once again keep us delightfully engaged with some wickedly adventurous stuff. 

Fairport Convention | By Popular Request | Album Review | Matty Grooves | 13.05.12

Released to coincide with Fairport Convention’s forty-fifth anniversary year, By Popular Request is a collection of familiar songs from the band’s vast repertoire, specially re-recorded at the request of the band’s loyal fanbase after being polled by the band via email.  As the emails came in and the votes were counted, these ten songs emerged triumphantly revealing some predictable choices such as “Matty Groves”, “Meet on the Ledge” and “Walk a While”, but also one or two surprises.  Racing towards half a century of music making Fairport’s following continues in strength, exemplified by the band’s annual knees-up in Oxfordshire, partly due to Fairport’s fun nature, partly due to their ongoing musical development and partly due to pure nostalgic purposes.  For the nostalgic amongst us, the songs given a make-over here cannot possibly compare with the originals; they’re not intended to and they’re not expected to, but nevertheless they are performed here once again by popular request as it says on the tin.  Bravo to Simon for honouring the request to sing “Fotheringay”, a song that only Sandy Denny can really sing.  Packaged in a sleeve resembling a vintage 1960s 45rpm single, By Popular Request also includes other favourites from the early years such as “Crazy Man Michael” and “Farewell Farewell” with Chris Leslie taking the lead on “The Hexhamshire Lass”, “Rosie” and “Sir Patrick Spens”.  Edmund Whitcombe contribues some fine cornet playing on a couple of the songs.  Reading through the song notes in the accompanying booklet reveals a huge debt to veteran Fairport drummer Dave Mattacks, without whom..

Rachel Hair Trio | No More Wings | Album Review | March Hair Records | 19.05.12

For her third album release, Glasgow-based harpist and composer Rachel Hair joins forces with her trio for the first time on record.  No More Wings features a selection of sophisticated instrumental arrangements blending Scotland’s rich heritage of vibrant instrumental music with one or two songs beautifully sung here by singer/guitarist Jenn Butterworth including Cyril Tawney’s “Grey Funnel Line”, Jesse Winchester’s “My Songbird” as well as her own “Island”.  The trio is completed by East Kilbride’s Euan Burton on double bass, with guest appearances by Fraser Fifield on sax, Signy Jacobsdottir on percussion and Angus Lyon on Rhodes and accordion. Rachel, from the Highland village of Ullapool, is a highly disciplined exponent of the Scottish harp (or clarsach), a musician who has been playing the instrument from the age of ten, working her way through Scotland’s Fèis movement, under the tutelage of such leading musicians such as Corrina Hewat, Bill Taylor, Wendy Stewart and Alison Kinnaird.  The songs and tunes on No More Wings demonstrates that none of this has gone to waste.  A beauty. 

Tracey Browne | Everyone is Ordinary | Album Review | NABD | 22.05.12

Debut solo album from Manchester-based singer-songwriter Tracey Browne, proving that not everyone is ordinary despite the album title.  With eleven self-penned songs, one written with producer Nigel Stonier, Everyone Is Ordinary reveals a confident approach to songwriting.  With a brief spell as lead singer with the rock band Minus One Raver as well as appearing in Thea Gilmore’s band as backing vocalist/keyboard player, Tracey is ready to demonstrate her credentials as a fine songwriter in her own right.  Originally from Cambridge, Tracey delivers a punchy collection of songs that are both honest and uncompromising, with the occasional heart on sleeve scenario.  There’s also one or two moments of quirky tenderness, on Kate Rusby for instance, which has our heroine fantasizing over being Eddi Reader, while her protagonist is our Kate.  A sort of rite of passage that we all go through in order find our real selves (this reviewer was Al Pacino once, honest guv).  The final lyric in “River City” probably offers Tracey Browne’s most astute observation, that she has a lot to stick around for and this might indeed be her time.

The Old Dance School | Chasing the Light | Album Review | Transition | 22.05.12

Described as a cinematic septet, the Birmingham-based Old Dance School returns with a superb follow up to their remarkable second album Forecast album of 2010.  Once again their blending of traditional instrumentation such as the twin fiddles of Samantha Norman and Helen Lancaster, together with the jazz trumpet style of Aaron Diaz and Laura Carter’s early music explorations on woodwind, not to mention the superb rhythm section featuring Tom Chapman’s Peruvian cajón and Adam Jarvis’s double bass, the band are once again poised to demonstrate their remarkable flair for arrangement and superb musicianship.  With some fine arrangements of new and familiar songs such as the Robin Beatty’s captivating gannet harvesting song “Sula Sgier” and the sublime “The North Edge”, which closes the album, together with a fine interpretation of the traditional “Craigie Hill”, famously performed by Dick Gaughan on his seminal Handful Of Earth album, the album features some fine instrumental pieces such as the adventurous opener “From the Air” and the lilting “Hiraeth”.  Although the pieces are complex, they are completely uncluttered and are ultimately easy to listen to.  This is not music for the connoisseur, this music is for everybody.

Duncan McCrone | Colourblind | Album Review | Circular | 22.05.12

The thirteen songs on Duncan McClone’s latest album Colourblind, whether original or interpretations of familiar songs by other notable singer-songwriters, are treated to delicate arrangements by a singer with a thirty-five year pedigree.  Crediting chief collaborator Cy Jack as a bone fide partner in this project, the two musicians have created an album of warmth and tenderness with songs covering family relationships in the title song Colourblind, a song about his grandparents that refers to a Mr Guthrie, not to be mistaken for the folk troubadour or indeed his wayward son, but the fine artist James Guthrie of the Glasgow Boys fame, to a nostalgic song about a Scot longing to be an American.  With the occasional borrowed song such as Phil Oches’ classic protest anthem “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore”, Campbell Gunn’s “The Fishing Days” and Rab Noakes’ “Waiting Here For You”, McClone includes the almost obligatory Burns song with a fine piano-led arrangement of “Ae Fond Kiss”.  With sleeve notes also by Rab Noakes, this handsomely packaged cd complete with an informative booklet also includes contributions from Chris Stout, Stevie Lawrence and Ray Laidlaw. 

Wing and Hollow | North of Nowhere | Album Review | Self Release | 22.05.12

This new EP by Los Angeles-based Wing and Hollow confirms what we already know about Haven and Jill Lamoureux, that they have a certain flair in the craft of songs making and they really should be known and appreciated by a wider audience.  Once again the five songs included here have a haunting quality; once heard, not easily forgotten.  Fortunately, we don’t want to forget them, easily nor otherwise.  The shifting tempo that holds the opening song “Look Out Below” together provides an immediate snapshot of what Wing and Hollow are all about with the song’s instantly accessible melody, the confident vocals courtesy of Jill Lamourex and the assured arrangement.  This could pretty much be echoed in the tender love song “Keep it in the Dark” as well.  As in the case of the duo’s previous release, the songs are once again produced by the authoratitive partnership of Dorian Heartsong and Jose Alcantar, with further contributions from Jonathan Richards on bass and Alex Howland on Hammond organ.  Pop these five songs next to the eight included on Frozen Trees and voila, there’s a Wing and Hollow album to treasure.  

Rebekah Findlay | Improvising Around the Sun | Album Review | Ted Records | 10.06.12

This excellent follow up to Rebekah Findlay’s 2010 debut Northern Skies once again clearly demonstrates Rebekah’s command over song writing with seven original songs and one instrumental, together with a new arrangement of a well-known traditional song and a couple of covers, including a pop song known to millions hidden within a vastly different arrangement.  Enriched with atmosphere and melancholy, Rebekah’s songs resonate with an ethereal quality, largely due to her instantly recognisable voice, her gentle guitar style and some tastefully executed fiddle work.  From the opening bars of the melancholic “Blackbird Song”, complete with atmospheric guitar accompaniment, courtesy of Chris Davison, the album unfolds with delicate precision.  With instantly accessible melodies, such as on “Rhythm of the Sea” and “Gray’s Lament”, Rebekah demonstrates a confident approach to song writing and storytelling.  Even with the non-original material, Rebekah effectively makes the songs her own with little effort such as her version of “You’re the One That I Want”, yes the Grease hit, albeit gently reworked as a sultry slow ballad, together with Tom Bliss’s haunting ballad “Violin”, prompting the singer to ponder about the mysterious life of her own instrument.  With the one traditional song included, “Ten Thousand Miles”, this second offering from this young North Yorkshire-based singer-songwriter confirms her credentials as a valid and important new voice on the acoustic music scene.

Ewan McLennan | The Last Bird to Sing | Album Review | Fellside | 11.06.12

Ewan McLennan returns with this his second album on Fellside, The Last Bird To Sing, the title of which refers to one of the three McLennan originals included.  Once again McLennan explores traditional Scottish ballads such as the transportation song “Jamie Raeburn” and the melancholic “Lichtbob’s Lassie”, with each song demonstrating a precise guitar technique and an unmistakably original voice.  The well-deserved Horizon Award nomination and subsequent win at the 2011 BBC Folk Awards further revealed McLennan’s credentials as a key player on the current folk scene, a singer and musician admired by critics and fans alike.  McLennan’s original songs come over as confident and mature, with an acknowledgement to the tradition; it being virtually impossible to differentiate between the songs that are new and the ones that are much older.  While the true tale of Joe Glenton comes over as a modern day conscientious objector protest song, the title song is a tender ballad chronicling the hardships of factory closures and survival.  The album also features a couple of instrumentals, “Reeling and Staggering/Napoleon Crossing the Alps” and “The Lass of Aughrim/Ae Fond Kiss”, each demonstrating a confident approach to finger-style guitar playing.  Co-produced by McLennan and Fellside’s Paul Adams, the album also features contributions from John McCusker on fiddle and Martin Simpson on slide guitar, together with Karine Polwart who provides some harmony singing on the opening song, Matt McGinn’s “Rolling Hills of the Borders”.

Katherine Hurdley and Alex Percy | First Red Rose | EP Review | Willowbrook Records | 12.06.12

Following their individual successes in the Sheffield-based outfit The QP and the Celtic quartet The Long Notes respectively, Katherine Hurdley and Alex Percy release their debut EP as a duo, featuring four songs inspired or collected from their native counties of Leicestershire and Dorset.  With Katherine’s background as a classically trained musician, her delicate fiddle and whistle playing is complemented by Alex’s empathetic guitar with occasional fiddle and piano contributions.  With two songs penned by Harold Boulton, “Lullaby” and the title song “First Red Rose”, featuring some fine double-tracked whistle accompaniment courtesy of Katherine, Alex arranges the traditional “Sheep Shearing” together with his own song “The Clubmen”, a song chronicling the fateful battle between Cromwell’s New Model Army and the Dorset countryfolk during the English Civil War, each song revealing the duo’s flair for arrangement.  With Andrew North underpinning the overall sound with his fine bass runs, First Red Rose serves as a great introduction to a promising new duo.     

Larkin Poe | Thick as Thieves Special Edition | EP Review | Edvins | 15.06.12

With some slight over-eagerness, I recently reviewed Larkin Poe’s fifth EP before its official release after picking up a pre-release copy at their London gig in November 2011.  This special edition of the EP includes an additional live DVD and therefore deserves further mention within these pages.  Filmed in October 2011 at the Sunnfjord Geo Centre in Stongfjorden, Norway, the Lovell sisters Rebecca and Megan appear in medieval dress before a small gathering in order to present some of their best loved songs including “Long Hard Fall”, “Principle of Silver Lining” and “We Intertwine”, as well as live favourites “In My Time of Dyin’” and the bluesy “Bleeding Heart”.  Beautifully filmed, the DVD captures the band in an intimate setting, playing as good as ever, providing an excellent introduction to this very special band whose star is very much on the rise, not only for those still to discover the band, but also for the fully paid-up members of the Larkin Poe fan base.   In barely eighteen months Northern Sky has been fortunate enough to have taken delivery of no less than five EPs by arguably the best little band to have emerged from the States in the last ten years.  Easy to say, but difficult to pinpoint precisely where their appeal lies. It’s a mixture of Rebecca and Megan Lovell’s flair for song writing for certain, maybe their command over their instruments, Rebecca’s guitar, mandolin and occasional fiddle playing, while Megan alternates between dobro and lap steel.  Could it be Rebecca’s charismatic, infectious personality and inimitable gutsy vocal or just the way the room lights up when these two Georgia peaches enter a room?  Whichever way you want to look at it, Larkin Poe is a force to be reckoned with and that’s for certain.  Ditching the seasonal theme (their first four EPs were entitled Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter) together with the cute little rosy-cheeked Mindy Lacefield caricatures, Thick As Thieves borrows a British phrase for the title of this their fifth EP and the sisters appear all grown up on the sleeve.  The Lovells continue to investigate that unidentifiable appeal, which is spreading like southern forest fires upon each visit to these shores.  Their journey began when Rebecca and Megan formed the band from the ashes of The Lovell Sisters, the family band that came to an end shortly after elder sister Jessica left to pursue other interests a couple of years ago. Since then the band have organically grown, transforming their sound from country roots/bluegrass basics to a toughened-up rockier outfit, largely due to Megan’s trademark electric lap steel, which is utilised to full effect, sparring effortlessly with Rick Lollar’s staggeringly dextrous guitar playing.  With all seven selections on the EP credited to both Rebecca and Megan, the co-written songs once again demonstrate a command over melody, from the soulfully anthemic “Play On” to the strangely burlesque “On the Fritz”, featuring Mace Hibbard’s soprano sax.  “Russian Roulette” returns to the same sort of place that sent shivers scurrying up and down our backs in earlier songs such as “Burglary” and “Wrestling a Stranger”.  With regular drummer Chad Melton, Todd Parks on bass, Will Robertson on keyboards and Marlon Patton on percussion, Larkin Poe are confident and outstanding players in a highly populated musical genre, standing head and shoulders above the rest.  Catch them in a small venue while you can, they’ve already started playing the sort of venues frequented by Elvis Costello, literally.

Various Artists | Harbour of Songs | Album Review | Proper | 17.06.12

Producer Adrian McNally of The Unthanks presides over this exceptional album, which brings together a wide variety of songwriters, poets, musicians and performers all of whom were invited to contribute songs especially written to accompany Gary Winters and Gregg Whelan’s Lone Twin Boat Project.  The project, which originally invited members of the public to donate a variety of wooden items that would eventually form part of a sea faring vessel, came with the proviso that each of the donations would come with its own special story.  These stories form the basis of this new record which features such noted songwriters as Ralph McTell, Steve Tilston, Janis Ian and Guy Chambers.  With much of the musical ‘colouring’ provided by various members of the extended Unthanks family, the songs are seasoned not only with the distinctive voices of the Unthank siblings Rachel and Becky but also musical contributions from Niopha Keegan on violin, Lizzy Jones on trumpet and Jo Silverston on cello to name but a few, while Unthank protégé’s Jonny Kearney and Lucy Farrell each contribute a song of their own to the project.  Reflecting the album’s inspiration perfectly, each song is donated in precisely the same manner as the wooden items themselves, each specifically bringing to life the stories behind them, from Alasdair Roberts’ “My Rola Bola Board”, inspired by donation no 721, a rola bola board used for over 60 years as part of Maurice French and Joy’s variety act to Nick Hornby’s “The Ruler”, which Adrian McNally sings with Becky Unthank, telling the familiar tale (to those of us of a certain generation) of the extracurricular use of such objects in the school room, in this case a wooden ruler, which is no longer physically felt but lingers on in our thoughts to this day.  Beautiful stories from beautiful minds.

Jack McNeill and Charlie Heys | Two Fine Days | Album Review | Fellside | 19.06.12

This third outing for the Birmingham-based duo follows its two predecessors on Fellside, Light Up The Beacons and The Northern Road and once again features the singing of Jack McNeill accompanied by the empathetic fiddle playing of Charlie Heys. Receiving critical acclaim, the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award finalists continue to create their own distinctively atmospheric music, inspired by the ever-changing landscapes of their homeland, its people and traditions with songs of carefully observed themes such as border feuding and the beauty of our coastlines to just the simplistic value of having two fine days in a row.  Jack McNeill and Charlie Heys manage to take us to places otherwise unventured.  The tunes included here are all written by Charlie, each holding a certain significance for the composer, whether it be the last tune written before leaving Scotland for pastures new in “The Kiss” or a fond farewell to the family pet dog in “Little Ginger” or just something inspired by a nice evening spent in the garden with dad in “The First Garden”; often there is little need for words when music alone can convey the right emotion for each event.  Surrounding themselves with an impressive trio of musicians, Hannah Phillips on Scottish harp, Sean Law on Double Bass and Tom Chapman on percussion, the duo continue to impress with their musical development.

Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman | Hidden People | Album Review | Navigator | 20.06.12

Before the convenience of online shopping and instant music downloads, it would take something special for me to drop everything and drive the twenty miles to Sheffield specifically to buy a record, knowing that my town would not have such an item in stock.  Such was the situation back in 1995 when Jim Lloyd played a song from the Kate Rusby and Kathryn Roberts album on his Folk on 2 radio programme.  The voices of these two women was enough for me to drop everything and race over to Meadowhell in order to buy the CD.  Then there was the added bonus of discovering that these two heavenly voices were produced by two heavenly creatures, which I discovered as the item was being handed over to me; something to brighten up the dreary looking folk cds on the shelf.  The revelations didn’t stop there though.  There was a further bonus, a veritable cherry on top of the cake, when I found that these singers were both from just up the road from me.  An astonishing seventeen years has gone by in a flash with various marriages, a few children and the odd supergroup together with one or two unprecidented success stories, especially when it comes to folk music.  While one of the Kate’s garnered worldwide acknowledgement as the sweetheart of the British folk music scene and as The Equation ran its course, playing extensively throughout the world and especially across the pond, Kathryn Roberts sidled out of the limelight momentarily in order to raise her family and has since waited patiently for that moment to take her meaningful place in the hearts and minds of this music scene we all love and cherish.  That moment is here at last.  With husband/producer/guitarist Sean Lakeman by her side, Kathryn takes centre stage in order to deliver the sort of beautiful music we were all perfectly aware she had stored away somewhere, just waiting to burst out at the most convenient moment.  With Sean affording himself some time out of his heavy touring commitments in brother Seth’s band and with two beautiful floral-named twins allowing mummy a little time to return to the studio in order to do the sort of stuff she was born to do, Hidden People comes along to deliver the goods on cue.  With song themes ranging from seductive Swedish forest creatures in the opening song “Huldra” to some woman-scorned-type vengefulness in the uplifting pop-styled “Hang the Rowan”, which will no doubt have you dancing around the living room, we must also be prepared to be struck silent with the utterly gorgeous “The Ballad of Andy Jacobs”, which focuses on the turmoil that young people are forced to endure during industrial disputes and the tribulations of love tested in difficult times.  Beautiful.  Go on, I challenge you to sit through that one without shedding a tear or two.  Reuniting with former Equation members Cara Dillon and husband Sam Lakeman, together with Seth himself, the album is packed with strong family connections.  With further contributions from Leveller’s frontman Mark Chadwick, Dave Burland, Megson’s Stu Hannah, Jim Moray, Austin-based singer-songwriter Caroline Herring and one third of Swedish sibling trio Baskery, Greta Bondesson, Hidden People is one of those delightful records that leaps onto the player and will no doubt stick around for a long while. 

Gary Stewart | Year and a Day | Album Review | Babaganoush | 23.06.12

The Scots-born now Leeds-based singer-songwriter Gary Stewart adopts a minimalist approach as he returns with four new songs with four single syllable titles, “Thorns”, “Eve”, “Green” and “Blue”.  The four songs on his new Year And A Day EP once again feature Gary’s distinctively throaty voice and delicate acoustic guitar throughout.  The opening song “Thorns” is imbued with an epic torch-bearing anthemic quality that you imagine would go down well as a concert finisher, while Eve is effortlessly reminiscent of the mid-1960s bed-sit period Paul Simon.  By stark contrast the sprightly mandolin-led Green brings out the more joyful side of Gary Stewart’s songwriting with a veritable toe-tapper of a song.  Concluding with the more brooding nature of “Blue”, the EP closes with a moment of thoughtful repose, both atmospheric and tightly arranged.  With contributions from Rich Huxley on vocals and percussion, Sam Lawrence on vocals, electric guitar and mandolin, Adam Richards on double bass, Rich Stephenson on vocals, Kieran O’Malley on violin and Simon Goff on violin and viola, Year And A Day clearly indicates Stewart’s growing ambidextrous qualities both up front and at his usual position on the drummer’s seat.     

Steel Threads | Timing Is Everything | Album Review | Rocksector | 23.06.12

Debut album by Coventry-based three-piece power rock/folk ensemble Steel Threads, whose Neil Wardleworth, Stuart Eastham and Cliff Woodworth are no strangers to the music world.  With eleven original compositions all written by Wardleworth, Timing Is Everything provides some of the energy the band strives to produce on stage.  With searing fiddle runs courtesy of Woodworth, augmented by Wardleworth’s acoustic guitar and Eastham’s double bass, songs like “Nothing To Hide”, “Steel Threads” and “Sapphire Blue” keep the energy levels up, while one or two tender moments are approached on the likes of “If Words Grew on Trees”, “We All Leave Alone” and the soulful “Let the Wind Blow”.  Not folk rock, more rock with folk elements.

Steve Katz | Barricades | Album Review | Self Release | 24.06.12

With five well-produced original songs from this debut EP by Brussels-born but now New York-based singer-songwriter Steve Katz, we get an instant feel for what Steve’s songs are all about.  With a style reminiscent of such artists as Damien Rice, Jose Gonzalez and occasionally Brad Roberts (Crash Test Dummies), Katz (not to be mistaken for the former Blood, Sweat and Tears guitarist/producer) maintains a highly listenable approach throughout with highly melodic and thoughtful songs, despite the material ranging in style from the optimistically self-probing Thrive, the tender break-up ballad Fair to the soulful title song Barricades.  With a plain black and white portrait gracing the cover, an idea that has done the careers of Bjork and Patti Smith no harm whatsoever, Barricades heralds another potential success story in the making.

Syd Arthur | On and On | Album Review | Dawn Chorus | 30.06.12

Inventive and funky debut from Kent-based four-piece Syd Arthur, whose easily detectable precedent must be that of their Canterbury-based forerunners of the late 1960s.  It’s almost as if Prog Rock has returned but with much less pretentious baggage. Musically, Syd Arthur explore World rhythms but remain pretty much grounded in experimental mode throughout, exploring musical textures rather than specifically seeking a multi-cultural starting point.  A good place would to start would be “Edge of the Earth”, which has all the experimental credentials of Lark’s Tongue-period King Crimson but basks in a contemporary feel.  The changing rhythmic patterns of the lengthy closer “Paradise Lost” even manages to evoke the complexities of Yes-like arrangements, while material such as Dorothy offers moments of dreamy reverie.  Self-produced by the band featuring Liam Magill on guitar and vocals, Raven Bush on violin, Fred Rother on drums and Joel Magill on bass, On An On brings the innovation of early Canterbury Scene bands back to that city and may just as well be rolled out to the rest of us now. What better time?

The Mighty Doonans | The Mighty Doonans | Album Review | Self Release | 01.07.12

The Mighty Doonans are essentially The Doonan Family Band with some of the younger family members joining in on the fun. This multi-talented, multi-generational, mightily fine and mightily Doonan-drenched debut from one of the Northeast’s most famous musical dynasties comes with a sense of fun and a tangible panache, taking traditional material then applying the family penchant for rocking it up a bit.  The Doonan legacy stretches back to John Doonan’s fiddle playing father, which has subsequently filtered down the generations through John himself, the founder of the Doonan Family Band and master of the Irish piccolo, then on through sons Mick on pipes, piccolo and sax and Kevin on fiddle, then on to granddaughters Fran and Rosie, the latter fresh from her stint singing in Peter Gabriel’s world tour band.  The spirit of John Doonan’s Irish dance tunes are present throughout The Mighty Doonans along with Mick and Kevin’s 1970s folk rock adventures with Hedgehog Pie, once again aided and abetted by Phil Murray’s bass and Stu Luckley’s guitar and keyboards, to revisit some of the songs that were once a staple of British folk clubs down the years, “Johnny Miner”, “Step It Out Mary” and “Ramblin’ Siuler”.  The band is completed by Phil’s son Ben Murray (Tarras), Jamie Luckley on drums and multi-instrumentalist Ian Fairbairn.  For those of us who thought the pairing of Rosie Doonan and Ben Murray was the best thing since sliced bread, the duo are reunited spectacularly here with their duet on the traditional “Banks of the Nile”.  While Rosie’s soulful Summertime-esque “Heart of Stone” provides a beautifully soulful moment, which effectively breaks up the fun momentarily, the Ray Davies classic “Dead End Street” sees the band at its most playful.

Ribbon Road | Roadside Dreams | Album Review | Shipyard | 03.07.12

This seventh album by Ribbon Road, the family band that effectively serves as a vehicle for the songs of prolific singer-songwriter Brenda Heslop, once again reveals a family business that knows what it’s doing. Joined once again by guitarist/producer husband Geoff and daughter Jill who provides additional vocals and accordion, Brenda delicately tackles her poetic lyricism with an assured confidence, with songs ranging in theme from homelessness “The World is Shaking”, grieving motherhood “Baby Baby” and Steinbeckian depressionism “Roadside Dreams”.  Paying homage to an old wax coat Brenda once wore when tending her sheep (Brenda is a working Northumberland shepherd), “Like a Bird” demonstrates precisely the unique quality of her mature songwriting.  With further help from Neil Harland on bass, Martin Heslop on guitars and Naomi Berrill on cello, Roadside Dreams maintains a gentle approach throughout, completely uncluttered by over-arrangement, delicately performed by musicians who treat each of the songs to an arrangement they all thoroughly deserve.

Anna MacDonald | Paper Flowers | Album Review | Self Release | 04.07.12

Although the sleeve to Anna MacDonald’s new EP states that all five songs are written by the Glasgow-raised singer-songwriter, I’m hoping the inclusion of “Matty Groves” is an oversight despite a touch of re-writing by the singer.  Here, Anna re-tells the familiar story with much of the drama suggested by the arrangement rather than the voice.  The four other songs demonstrate a flair for gentle if sometimes brooding lyricism, with the title song suggesting an inherent sadness upon receiving flowers with the reality that ultimately, all we do is watch them die.  Each song is performed with Anna’s clear and precisely mannered vocal, almost reminiscent of something Miss Dashwood would deliver seated at her piano forte while Colonel Brandon looks on with Cupid’s arrow buried deep between his ribs.  Co-produced by Anna and Fraser Fifield, Paper Flowers includes further contributions from Graeme Stephen, Suzanne Houston, Mike Vass and Mario Caribe, each adding their own musical voice to this fine collection of songs.

Emily Levy | Lost and Found | Album Review | Self Release | 05.07.12

Evocative debut solo album from London-born singer, songwriter and composer Emily Levy, whose songs are suitably reflected in the brooding cover shot, which depicts a young girl tentatively peering into the darkness of the mysterious forest.  Now based in Yorkshire, Emily creates her own specific hybrid of folk and jazz with a sprinkling of bold and contemporary sounds.  Lending her artistic endeavours not only to her own contemporary folk music but to other commissions with dance projects, together with her work with young singers, Emily has become well-versed in various musical forms and in Lost And Found we see the fruition of those endeavours.  Unafraid to incorporate sound effects such as the delightful birds section on “Still Point”, which is effectively a prelude to the title song “Lost and Found” and used in much the same manner as Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma-period “Grantchester Meadows”, Emily adds the sort of atmosphere that music cannot achieve alone.  With ten original songs and the one non-original, Ewan Maccoll’s “The Joy of Living”, which is accompanied by Matthew Bourne’s sparse piano, Emily surrounds herself with a handful of musicians to help create what is essentially a rather lovely album including Sam Hobbs on drums, Mark Creswell and Rich Arthurs on guitars, Jon Burr on harmonica, Richard Ormrod on wind and Gary Stewart on vocals. Rich in atmosphere, Lost And Found stands out as a fine and assured debut.

Chris Helme | The Rookery | Album Review | Little Num Num Music | 06.07.12

Chris Helme casts aside his earlier collection of acoustic songs that formed Ashes (2008) to make way for what he considers to be his first bone-fide debut album, which features ten original songs and the one instrumental that opens the album.  Despite this whimsical opening mellotron-led instrumental, it’s Helme’s voice that forms the heart of the album; an easily recognisable voice to anyone familiar with The Seahorses, the short-lived Britpop band formed in the mid-1990s by Stone Roses guitarist John Squire, which Helme fronted.  Recorded over nine days in the idyllic setting of The Rookery in the Yorkshire Dales, this highly textured collection of songs clearly demonstrate Helme’s command over good melodies and thoughtful lyrics.  Opening with the instrumental “Pickled Ginger”, which Helme refers to as a ‘palette cleanser’, in effect separating the new from the old, The Rookery continues with one thoroughly engaging song after another.  With instantly accessible melodies on such songs as the dreamy “Blindeye”, “Good To Be In Love” and “Summer Girl”, the album at times returns to sort of rock base associated with The Seahorses, particularly on “Daddies Farm” and “The Spindle and the Cauldron”, while “Darkest Days” and the atmospheric Beatle-esque “Plane” confirm Helme’s credentials as a major league singer-songwriter.  Co-produced by Helme and Sam Forrest (Nine Black Alps), the album features amongst others, some empathetic contributions from Stuart Fletcher on bass, Gethin Sinkins on drums and in particular John Hargreaves who arranges the strings provided by The Ligeti Quartet, a major contribution to the overall sound.

Hatful of Rain | Way Up On The Hill | Album Review | Union Music Store | 16.07.12

Possibly named after Fred Zinnemann’s 1957 movie or Del Amitri’s record forty years on, this Sussex-based Bluegrass outfit’s music couldn’t be further from either.  Recorded in a barn in Fulking, Sussex, Way Up On The Hill features ten original songs and the one traditional, an arrangement of Angelina Baker, with each song treated to a pretty authentic bluegrass arrangement showcasing confident playing and deliciously delivered harmonies and sounding for all intents and purposes anything but British.  With Chloe Overton and Fred Gregory sharing the vocal, guitar and mandolin duties and James Shenton supplying some spot on fiddle playing as well as some occasional piano, Phil Jones completes the quartet on double bass, banjo and that all important third voice.  Hatful of Rain seamlessly blend their folk and bluegrass roots to great effect on such songs as “Strawberry Leaves”, “Winter Rose”, “No Return” and “Whiskey” with the occasional nod towards rockabilly on “Rocking Chair Daddy” as well as a sprinkling of World music influences on the Klezmer-inspired instrumental “Jerusalem Tart”.  Once again the chops of Britain’s roots musicians are on show for all to see.

Sean Taylor | Love Against Death | Album Review | SGO Records | 17.07.12

With the inclusion of Herbert Mason’s memorable photograph of St Paul’s Cathedral taken during the blitz on the back page of the accompanying booklet, we are instantly reminded of London’s resilience during difficult times.  Sean Taylor’s fifth album to date demonstrates the same sort of resilience with a dozen songs of conscience, each delivered in an almost whispered tone but with a power that hits home hard.  Whether dealing with heroin addiction “Heaven”, the destruction of communities and in particular the coal industry “Coal Not Dole”, “Sixteen Tons”, “Ballad of a Happy Man”, Neo-Liberalism “Western Intervention” or political unrest “Stand Up”, Love Against Death stands up as a soundtrack for our times.  Although all the songs are imbued with a socio/political feel, there are moments of pure escapism with a nod towards the Beat Generation and in particular Neil Cassady, the inspiration for one of Jack Kerouac’s most celebrated characters Dean Moriarty.  Cassady draws a parallel of life on the road, separated by generations only; the heart of a wandering spirit, whether it be an adrenaline-fuelled hell raiser and merry prankster from Denver or a folk singing troubadour from Kilburn, the connection is there.  With reflections on Taylor’s two ‘homes’, the North-West London suburb in Kilburn and the fields of Glastonbury in “Absinthe Moon”, Taylor’s songs reflect on better times with just a hint at love and freedom.  The album concludes with a beautiful ode to the poor and weak with “Hymn”, featuring the voice of Eliza Gilkyson.

Anna Coogan and Daniele Fiaschi | The Nowhere, Rome Sessions | Album Review | Self Release | 26.07.12

The nine songs on The Nowhere, Rome Sessions will be familiar to those who caught any of Anna Coogan’s 2011 shows, where the Boston-based singer-songwriter teamed up with Roman guitarist Daniele Fiaschi, which has subsequently been described as a ‘match made in Heaven’.  Despite Anna’s little Italian and Danny’s little English, their mutual language is to be found in their music, where their communication is completely devoid of ambiguity, misunderstanding or uncertainty; in fact it’s almost uncannily perspicacious.  There just seems to be a tangible empathy present when these two musicians meet.  With songs previously aired on Anna’s previous albums such as “Crooked Sea” and “Back To the World” from The Nocturnal Among Us (2009) and “Streamers” and “A Little Less Each Day” from her most recent solo album The Wasted Ocean (2011), the duo commit to record a handful of live favourites such as Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” and a live version of the moving Phil Oches song “The Crucifixion” recorded at the 2011 Roepaen Festival in Ottersum, Holland.  Not only the perfect souvenir for those of us who played a small part in Anna and Danny’s memorable 2011 tour, but an ideal introduction for those yet to be touched by this duo’s symbiotic partnership.

Eugene Twist | The Boy Who Had Everything | Album Review | Tough Act | 29.07.12

Glasgow’s Eugene Twist embarks on his own musical journey with this ambitious debut, which starts with a throttled saxophone intro, courtesy of Mike Brogan and threatens to continue throughout until the melodramatic tension subsides by the second song.  After the excitement of the opener “If There’s Love Where I’m Going”, the following seven songs reveal a mature sense of melody and an individualistic approach to song writing.  At 25, Eugene Twist (what a great name!) clearly reveals an artist who doesn’t settle for second best.  Richly textured throughout, there are no apparent throwaway or half-hearted attempts, with each of the song selections clearly thought out, such as “Gaughan, Tough Act to Follow” and the dreamy “Actress on a Mattress”.  The title song also demonstrates Twist’s flair for creating almost theatrical atmosphere, once again reflecting the excitement of the opening song.  Self-produced with a little help from Stephen Scott at Elba Studio in Glasgow, The Boy Who Had Everything not only features multi-instrumentalist Eugene Twist, but also a handful of choice musicians helping out including Nicholas Blythe taking care of bass, guitars and various other instruments, Ben Sinkie on keyboards and violin, the aforementioned Mike Brogan on both Saxophone  and Clarinet, Stevie McHard and Gordon Turner on guitars, Matthew Mullan on Cello and Josie Doherty on Vocals.

The Halton Quartet | Based on True Events | Album Review | Self Release | 12.08.12

Highly inventive debut packed with adventurous arrangements as two established duos meet up to start an unstoppable chemical reaction.  With Adam Bulley and Chas Mackenzie (better known as Wingin’ It) joining forces with one of Scotland’s most creative fiddle/accordion duos, Angus Lyon and Ruaridh Campbell, the Halton Quartet present nine original instrumental compositions, each featuring dextrous and virtuoso playing but at the same time each composition imbued with a highly listenable quality and each with its own significant meaning.  Named after the motor vessel the two duos met on at the 2007 Orkney Folk Festival, The Halton Quartet is set to make the same sort of strides already taken by such outfits as Lau and the Treacherous Orchestra.

Furnace Mountain | The Road To Berryville | Album Review | Self Release | 12.08.12

Recorded over a two day period, the follow up to Furnace Mountain’s groundbreaking fourth album Fields Of Rescue once again features more authentically sounding down home vocals and assured playing by one of Virginia’s leading Appalachian combos.  Recorded before a live audience, this latest bunch of a dozen songs showcases the band’s musical chops, while at the same maintaining an authentic old timey feel throughout.  With bassist Aimee Curl’s distinctively breathy vocals up front, perfectly complemented by bouzouki/guitar player Morgan Morrison’s intuitive harmony vocals, the band’s sound is completed by the rich musical dexterity of Danny Knicely’s faultless mandolin, sparring effortlessly with Dave Van Deventer (Fiddlin’ Dave) on twin fiddles. 

Various Artists | Electric Eden | Album Review | UMC | 12.08.12

Released to accompany Rob Young’s best-selling book of the same name, Electric Eden comprises thirty-six carefully chosen songs from an impressive back catalogue of vintage records each selection marking their own contribution to a changing world of British folk music and the burgeoning late 1960s early 1970s British folk-rock scene.  The selections are not predictable despite familiar titles such as Fairport’s “A Sailor’s Life”, which in this case is an earlier version to that we remember so well on their 1969 album Unhalfbricking, a couple of John Martyn selections “She Moves Through the Fair” and “Glistening Glyndebourne”, the odd Steeleye, Pentangle and Incredible String Band selection and an almost bewildering inclusion of David Bowie’s pre-Ziggy Stardust “Black Country Rock”.  The more obscure inclusions are the most interesting, such as Nick Drake’s “Voices” (also known as “Voice From the Mountain”), “Diana” by Comus and Unicorn’s “Country Road” a song subsequently associated with James Taylor.  The compilation is also accompanied by an informative booklet illustrated with the album sleeves that the songs were picked from; an impressive collection any discerning folk-rock fan would be proud of, especially in vinyl format. 

Karine Polwart | Traces | Album Review | Hegri Music | 13.08.12

Karine Polwart once remarked that she wished she could be a ‘wee bit more Billy Bragg’ when writing and performing her gentle protest songs.  It’s my belief that Karine’s songs are so powerful because of the gentle way she delivers them.  We have hearts and brains and don’t need to be bombarded with fist-waving anthems and communal chanting in order to be moved.  Anyone who wasn’t aware of Donald Trump’s intention to destroy the rural countryside of North East Scotland will be in no doubt after hearing “Cover Your Eyes”, but will possibly not feel they have attended a ‘preaching to the converted’ rally.  Produced by The Unwinding Hours’ Iain Cook, Karine’s fifth album to date features ten beautifully crafted songs, once again embellished with the tried and tested and utterly trusted teamwork of brother Steve Polwart on guitar and vocals and Inge Thomson on accordion, various percussion and that all important harmony vocal.  Empathetic and dove-tailed to precision, this team works as well as ever on Traces, while not a single word of Polwart’s lyrics is wasted.  There’s something hauntingly beautiful about “Half a Mile”, which closes the album and follows the last footsteps of murdered schoolgirl Susan Maxwell, swinging her tennis racquet while possibly singing the popular Dexy’s Midnight Runners hit of the day.  It’s difficult to imagine those moments and probably harder still to write those moments down in song, for none of us will ever truly understand why these things happen.  Although this particular song is poignantly moving, it’s not alone on this collection of songs, they all seem to stay with you for different reasons.

Susan Cattaneo | Little Big Sky | Album Review | Jersey Girl Music) | 14.08.12

If you think that these days singer-songwriters are all far too serious for their own good, Susan Cattaneo offered up a delightful reality check with her “Heaven Looks a Lot Like New Jersey” video, sporting a big hairdo back over the New Year period, which the New Jersey-raised singer made in reaction to rumours of Jon Bon Jovi’s death.  The now Boston-based singer-songwriter returns with more country-flavoured rock, again seemingly having fun with her music.  Just seven songs but each packing a punch, Little Big Sky not only showcases Cattaneo’s country rock credentials but also includes one or two melodic and instantly accessible pop songs such as the lovely “Alice in Wonder” and the title cut, both of which could be played on the radio every five minutes as far as I’m concerned.

Dana and Susan Robinson | American Hornpipe | Album Review | Self Release | 16.08.12

The fourth album release by Dana and Susan Robinson demonstrates just how effortless the duo seem to blend their Appalachian, British and African influences in order to bring something new to the table.  Fearless in their approach (who else would tackle “Who Killed Cock Robin” and make it sound so new and vibrant), the North Carolina-based duo mix traditional songs and tunes with a contemporary edge.  Their mixture of two worlds is no better exemplified than in the album’s title “American Hornpipe”, which unambiguously captures both sides of the pond in a nutshell.  Joining the Robinsons are local Asheville trio Free Planet Radio, featuring River Guerguerian on drums and percussion, Eliot Wadopian on bass and Chris Rosser providing strings and keyboards. 

Steve Thompson (Aka Blabbermouth) | Ramble | Album Review | Self Release | 18.08.12

Bone-fide rambler/troubadour Steve ‘Blabbermouth’ Thompson alights from his 45ft narrow boat, which he shares with his wife and cat, to release his latest collection of self-penned songs, each of which delivers a gentle message ranging from the light and whimsical to potent observations of the world around him.  Well travelled, Thompson engages with the places he visits, dropping place names into his song repertoire such as “Amsterdam”, “Old Grey London” and his own seaside town of “Littlehampton”, each song bringing vivid images of his travels.  With a gentle voice and guitar style to match, Thompson is joined by Josienne Clarke, who adds her unmistakably empathetic voice to “The Farm We’ll Never Have”.

Greg Russell and Ciaran Algar | The Queen’s Lover | Album Review | Fellside | 20.08.12

Formed just one year ago, this young duo release their debut album on Fellside, which features fifteen songs and tunes, some familiar, some not so, but each showcasing a confidence beyond their years.  Greg Russell and Ciaran Algar mix English and Celtic traditional music with contemporary songs to create their own refreshingly youthful style, re-visiting such memorable songs and tunes as Ann Lister’s “Icarus” and Jay Ungar’s “Ashokan Farewell” as well as presenting newer material closer to home such as “The Hills of the West” written by Ciaran’s father.  Produced by Paul Adams, the album also features additional vocals and concertina courtesy of Linda Adams. 

The Nordic Fiddlers Bloc | The Nordic Fiddlers Bloc | Album Review | Etnisk Musikklubb | 21.08.12

The Nordic Fiddlers Bloc brings together three of the finest fiddler players on the current folk scene, each from a different part of the world and each with his own distinct style of playing.  Norway’s Olav Luksengård Mjelva, Sweden’s Anders Hall and Shetland Islander Kevin Henderson share and blend their styles to produce a dozen pieces of music either self-penned, borrowed from other writers or based upon traditional Shetland, Swedish or Norwegian tunes.  With each of the instruments used on this album featured clock-like on the actual cd disc, three fiddles, an octave fiddle and a viola, the gatefold sleeve comes complete with informative notes, explaining each of the selections.  As far as dragging the horse’s hair over the cat’s gut, these three musicians do it with a great deal of dexterity, virtuosity and musical flair.

Gem Andrews | Scatter | Album Review | Self Release | 22.08.12

Surrounding herself with an assortment of useful things; a juke box, a Dansette, a bunch of classic LPs, a handful of musical instruments, a guitar case with an obligatory sticker inviting us to Howl if we like City Lights Bookshop, a yet to be completed scrabble game and a couple of cups of tea (one for our host and one presumably for the photographer), our host sits and sings to her dog in His Master’s Voice fashion.  With all these objects suitably scattered, Liverpool-born singer-songwriter Gem Andrews delivers eight original songs and a couple of covers, each showcasing her delicate command over song writing and story telling.  Dark in places with one or two moments of beauty, Nicky Rushton’s “Ladybird” for example, which pivots between this and the next world, as a mother and daughter share their last moments together before the willow weeps for both.  In places reminiscent of Cowboy Junkies, with the occasional twangy guitar, Scatter shows both potential and promise and serves as a fine introduction to a singer-songwriter with something to say.  With contributions from Beccy Owen, Sue McLaren and Gabriel Minnikin, author of the other non-original song on the album Arkansas.

Alvin Lee | Still on the Road to Freedom | Album Review | Repertoire Records | 24.08.12

Former Ten Years After frontman, guitarist Alvin Lee returns with eleven self-penned songs and a couple of instrumentals (three if you count the hidden track at the end), stylistically ranging from 1950s rock and roll, JJ Cale-type swamp rock to the obligatory blues.  One of the greatest casualties of the Woodstock generation, a band that never really recovered from the iconic festival, Ten Years After folded in the early 1970s, yet the band’s leader still returns to those days, in this case with “Back in 69”, an almost throwaway song that starts as a reflection of the times then loses itself in an instrumental coda.  Lee also returns to the TYA repertoire and revisits the brilliant “Love Like a Man”, which unfortunately loses all the subtleties of the original, coming over as little more than T Rex plays Ten Years After.  The album’s saving grace is Lee’s superb guitar playing, which is still right up there with the best.   

Steve Summers Band | Lookin’ Back, Movin’ On | Album Review | Casket Records | 25.08.12

For this high octane debut by Reading-based blues trio the Steve Summers Band, eleven songs are taken by the neck and throttled to near submission with some direct, to the point and no-nonsense rock infused blues. With a repertoire that revisits classic blues numbers such as Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Your Funeral, My Trial” and Willie Dixon’s “Hoochie Coochie Man” to more soulful blues numbers like Keb’ Mo’s “Dangerous Mood”, Steve Summers (guitar), Scott Hunter (drums) and Trevor Brooks (bass) keep it pretty tight throughout, drawing also from British rock’s heyday, with Robin Trower’s “Too Rolling Stoned” and a fine interpretation of Deep Purple’s “Maybe I’m a Leo”, from the band’s Machine Head period.  Play loud.

The Harmed Brothers | Come Morning | Album Review | Lackpro Records | 02.09.12

The second album by Eugene, Oregon-based four-piece alt-country band, delivers nine new original songs with the one cover of Willy Tea Taylor’s jangly “The Very Best”.  With the two voices of Ray Vietti and Alex Salcido, who between them play guitar and banjo respectively, the duo are joined by the Kilmer brothers’ rhythm section featuring Ben on drums and Zach on bass.  With the roots of their music stretching back to their teenage years, the Harmed Brothers tend to keep it raw throughout, with each of the songs treated to a simple uncluttered arrangement, featuring as their trump card, their final vocal harmonies and rootsy banjo-led feel, especially on such songs as “Beast of the Northwest”, “The Water is Sweeter” and “Up Off the Ground”.  Don’t miss the piano-led hidden track “1951”, which in effect demonstrates another side of the band.

Porchlight Smoker | 2 | Album Review | Dead Reckoning | 10.09.12

Adorned with a pastiche of House Maid, one of graffiti king Banksy’s popular pieces, which effectively sees our heroine hiding Porchlight Smoker’s debut album in favour of this the band’s second offering, the Brighton-based quartet’s second album is predominantly made up of bluegrass, old time country and rootsy pop songs and once again showcases the band’s tight sound, great song choices and flair for arrangement.  With Fred Gregory on guitar, mandolin and vocals, Scott Smith on lap-steel, clarinet, harmonica and guitar, Steve Bell on banjo, mandolin, guitar and harmonica and Scott Warman on double bass and all sharing vocals, Porchlight Smoker bring their own character to such songs as Bob Marley’s “Stir It Up” (imagine that on banjo, mandolin and harmonica!) the traditional “Haul Away Joe”, Paul Siebel’s Classic “Louise” and Dylan’s timeless “Tomorrow Is A Long Time”.  The band also re-visit Fred Gregory’s gorgeous “Welcome to the Family”, recently heard on Hatful of Rain’s Way Up On The Hill album.

The Young’uns | When Our Grandfathers Said No | Album Review | Navigator | 11.09.12

Anyone familiar with the three part harmony singing of Hartlepool trio Michael Hughes, Sean Cooney and David Eagle, otherwise known as The Young’uns, affectionately named by their elder peers in Teesside pubs during sessions frequented by much older participants, will perhaps expect an unaccompanied vocal album.  The trio’s fourth album When Our Grandfathers Said No, not only showcases their tight harmonies but also their fine instrumentation on songs such as “Another Storm”, “Love in a Northern Town” and the adventurous “Wild Goose”, each revealing a pretty well-rounded statement of music and song.  Produced by Megson’s Stu Hanna, the dozen songs included here range from sea shanties, work songs, Northern love songs together with a fine three-part vocal rendition of James Taylor’s “You Can Close Your Eyes”.  One of the highlights of the album is Sean Cooney’s powerful “Jenny Waits for Me”, a tour-de-force of vocal magnificence, while “The Battle of Stockton” is a moving ballad which recalls 1930s contemporary small town life as locals stand unified in their opposition to fascism, a recurring theme in our own times.

Awna Teixeira | Where the Darkness Goes | Album Review | Self Release | 12.09.12

It has taken over ten years for Awna Teixeira to get around to her long awaited debut solo album after a long period of collaboration with the likes of street singing band The Derby, the alt-country band The Red Eyed Rounders and finally folk band Barley Wik before eight successful years with Po’ Girl.  During that time we have become familiar with Awna’s songs, her extraordinary stage presence, her ever present trilby and her command over the gut-bucket bass, for which the musician has written possibly the definitive manual.  Co-produced by Awna and Zach Goheen, Where The Darkness Goes contains eleven self-penned songs of startling quality, each treated to an easy on the ear arrangement, with contributions from Po’ Girl bandmates Allison Russell and Mikey ‘Lightning’ August and many of the Chicago musicians associated with JT and the Clouds.

Deborah Bonham | Take Me Down | Single Review | INgrooves/Fontana | 13.09.12

It’s been a while since Deborah Bonham’s last album Duchess (2008) and therefore it is with some degree of anticipation that we look forward to the follow up album Spirit due to be released next spring.  “Take Me Down” is the first single from the recently completed album and features regular band, Ian Rowley on bass, Gerard Louis on keyboards and Peter Bullick on guitar with Band of Joy’s Marco Giovino on drums.  Once again co-produced with Glenn Skinner, “Take Me Down” has a distinctly West Coast country rock feel, complemented by Deborah’s confident vocal, which keeps pretty much reined to her British rock roots, quite possibly the singer’s most comfy zone.  Just five years old when brother John took to the drummer’s seat in arguably the most popular band in rock history, it goes without saying that some of that edge seems to have rubbed off on lil’ sis.

Gilmore and Roberts | The Innocent Left | Album Review | Navigator | 13.09.12

Dropping both first names as well as the now familiar ‘Gilmore Roberts Records’ growling record label number, the Barnsley-based duo join the ranks of Lau, Bellowhead and Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman at Navigator Records for this, the duo’s highly accomplished third album.  Anyone who might have caught Katriona and Jamie in concert, whether that be in a supporting role to Fairport Convention or in their own leading role category, they will be more than aware of the Horizon-nominated duo’s musical dexterity, especially in Jamie’s familiar lapslapping guitar style and Kat’s left-handed fiddle and mandolin playing.  They will also be aware of the duo’s down-to-earth stage manner as well as their highly approachable presence at the concessions stand.  On record, we don’t have that visual presence at hand, instead we rely heavily upon the music exclusively, which in this case may just have surpassed all that has gone before.  With many artistes these days, we see critically acclaimed debuts followed by many attempts to live up to those first inspired flourishes of genius.  With Kat and Jamie it’s all done in reverse, with each album surpassing its predecessor in terms of confidence and quality.  This is largely due to Kat and Jamie’s determination not to rest on their laurels, their tireless work ethic and their insatiable desire for collaboration.  Produced by Julian Simmons, The Innocent Left features a small bunch of highly regarded musician friends such as Georgia’s Megan and Rebecca Lovell of Larkin Poe, on lapsteel, dobro and mandolin respectively, each of whom also contribute their inimitable vocals on Katriona’s “Shuffle and Deal”, together with The Old Dance School and UFQ’s Tom Chapman on percussion.  Dennis Hopper Choppers’ Ben Nicholls also appears on double bass with Will Foster on piano, while Graham Bell provides the flugelhorn on Jamie’s excellent “Louis Was A Boxer”, a gorgeous song about a regular visitor to the sandwich shop Jamie worked at during his university years.  Katriona makes no secret of her love of bluegrass music, inviting Cia Cherryholmes to appear on the duo’s previous album Up From The Deep for instance.  On Kat’s instrumental “Over Snake Pass”, possibly Britain’s only truly American sounding thoroughfare, the duo are joined by Rebecca Lovell for a nice mixture of Celtic fiddle and bluegrass mandolin.  For those of us who are forever entranced by Kat and Jamie’s signature sound, look no further than “Seven Left For Dead”, a powerful instrumental showcasing the sparring capabilities of both Kat and Jamie with some inventive percussion provided by Tom Chapman on darbuka and cajon.  Other songs of note are Katriona’s beautiful “Silver Screen” with some tasty dobro courtesy of Megan Lovell and Jamie’s “The Stealing Arm” which closes the album, a sprawling ballad based on John Ashton’s “The Thief’s Arm”.  If you buy only one album this month, make sure it’s this one.

Bob Dylan | Tempest | Album Review | Columbia | 14.09.12

Fifty years have now passed since Dylan’s debut album in 1962, which featured a fresh-faced Woody Guthrie wannabe on the cover, together with a couple of original songs hidden amongst a bunch of traditional bluesy covers.  A hundred years have also passed since the fateful maiden voyage of RMS Titanic, two events we’d like to forget but can’t due to our ongoing fascination with disasters.  One of these events is remembered here on Dylan’s 35th studio album.  If Woody Guthrie can take a classic piece of literature and subsequent John Ford film adaptation The Grapes of Wrath and turn it into a sprawling ballad “The Ballad of Tom Joad”, then why shouldn’t Dylan do something similar?  For fifteen years James Cameron has presented us with every conceivable re-release of his epic romantic disaster masterpiece, from original widescreen cinema version, video and laserdisc versions, DVD deluxe box set, blu-ray and most recently a 3D conversion, but hands up all who saw Dylan’s epic ballad of Titanic coming?  “Tempest” is just one of the delights on Dylan’s new album, a song that not only tells the famous story of a night we are often encouraged to remember, but also references the film with a brief mention of Leo taking his sketchbook.  This sprawling ballad is just one of ten new and original songs that forms the basis of the new album.  Dylan has always had a knack of opening his records with the one song that will always hook you in “Blowing in the Wind” “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, “Like a Rolling Stone”, “Tangled Up In Blue”, “Jokerman” spring to mind and in this case “Duquesne Whistle” does the trick, although the song is accompanied by a bizarre video promo, which depicts an entirely stoic Dylan and predictably odd entourage roaming the streets of downtown LA as a lovesick fool forfeits the use of his legs for the love of a pretty girl.  Produced by Dylan himself under his usual Jack Frost pseudonym, Tempest achieves what Dylan set out to achieve; an album of thoroughly engaging story songs, expertly told from the perspective of wisdom.  The album concludes with “Roll On John”, which sees Dylan paying homage to his legendary British counterpart John Lennon, shamelessly referencing “A Day in the Life” and “Come Together” in a moment of extraordinary tenderness, the familiar growl taking on an unexpected turn of emotion.  Pretty, poignant and a perfect conclusion to an exceptionally good album. 

Alexander Wolfe | Skeletons | Album Review | Dharma Records | 14.09.12

With many of today’s young singer-songwriters, sometimes the comparisons to the likes of Nick Drake can give the wrong impression.  Often it means nothing more than the fact that a singer handles the delicate material with deliberate sensitivity, or employs a nice clear guitar sound or sadly, that the material often errs on the side of the dark and gloomy.  I would have no problem in comparing Alexander Wolfe to Drake, but also with Tom Baxter, Jeff Buckley or even, don’t shoot me, Chris Martin.  The truth is, Alexander is his own man with his own style, which provides the perfect vehicle for his thoughtful lyrics and atmospheric delivery.  On this second album by the New Cross-based singer-songwriter, the follow up to the critically acclaimed debut Morning Brings A Flood, we are presented with nine original songs and the one non-original, Neil Young’s After The Gold Rush-period “Don’t Let It Bring You Down”, which is given a convincing make over here.  The original songs continue to demonstrate Wolfe’s explorations in tone, melody and atmosphere, with songs that almost straddle the borders of the obsessive, with recurring themes of bones and teeth (Skeletons, Fangs, Milk Teeth), which may allude to mortality and solitude but also to fading relationships, each connected organically by the singer’s use of delicate vocals that often employs a confident falsetto.  Produced by Alexander Wolfe, who also plays all the instruments with the exception of the strings, which are provided by the so-called Wolfettes, Rachel Dawson on cello, Polly Wiltshire on viola, Catriona Parker and Sarah Tuke on violins with additional violins by Martin Lissola and Frances Tidey, together with the horns provided by Trevor Mires on trombone and Duncan Mackay on muted trumpet.

Macmaster/Hay | Hook | Album Review | MDMC | 16.09.12

Upon first hearing Macmaster/Hay last year on their Love And Reason album, there was little doubt that the two musicians were doing something original and adventurous.  Rather than repeating some of those ideas that appeared on their debut, the duo have stretched themselves once again here with a further eleven compositions, both traditional and contemporary as well as four of the pieces written by the duo.  While the dance tunes are treated to a distinctively contemporary feel, the songs take on an ethereal quality, especially the duo’s take on Elvis Costello/Clive Langer’s still poignant “Shipbuilding”, a song that still resonates thirty years on.  Once again utilising the harp and various bits of percussion, not to mention the odd sample here and there, former Poozies harpist Mary Macmaster and much sought after percussionist Donald Hay combine their undoubted talents to create a mesmerising album that could easily form the backdrop of a lavish theatrical production, a soundtrack accompanying a good film, music to meditate to or in this case, just an exceptionally pleasurable album to listen to.  Produced by Donald Hay and Tim Matthew, Hook also features leading Scottish piper Rory Campbell reading a poem on “I Can’t Conceal”, effectively bringing another facet to the overall sound.  Although pretty much grounded in traditional Scottish music, the influence of West African music seeps through, with the harp taking on the role of the Kora, especially towards the end of the title song “Hook”. 

Malcolm Holcombe | Down The River | Album Review | Self Release | 17.09.12

Just a casual perusal of the musician credits indicates Malcolm Holcombe’s status on the Americana spectrum, with contributions here from the likes of Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle and Darrell Scott, who appears on the back cover shot with his right arm over Holcombe’s shoulder and his left over producer Ray Kennedy’s.  The gravel-voiced singer-songwriter’s ninth album to date once again features exclusively self-penned songs, ranging from hard-talking stories to soft-spoken reveries covering the emotional scale from each end in, from the hard-edged “Butcher in Town” to the sensitive “The Empty Jar”.  With Emmylou Harris duetting on “In Your Mercy” and Steve Earle on “Trail O’ Money”, our rugged hero is joined also by Kim Richey, Viktor Krauss and Uncle Tupelo’s Ken Coomer for what is essentially a well-rounded and satisfying album. 

Hurray For The Riff Raff | Look Out Mama | Album Review | Loose Music | 18.09.12

Once New Orleans-based Alynda Lee Segarra teamed up with young honky-tonk band The Tumbleweeds to form Hurray for the Riff Raff, doors flew open to explore a whole new range of musical styles from country folk to swamp pop, all of which have been sewn together in this patchwork of highly infectious melodies each featuring at the fore, Alynda’s distinctive vocal.  Originally from the Bronx, the Peurto Rican singer-songwriter delivers ten original songs, either solo or with the band, each providing a snapshot of the broad range of styles at the band’s disposal.  Opening with the traditional “Little Black Star”, memorably recorded by Appalachian folk singer John Jacob Niles, the album covers a lot of ground, from the acoustic solo “Ramblin’ Gal”, the 1950s doo-wop feel of “What’s Wrong With Me” to the full blown 1960s Psychedelic sound of “Ode to John and Yoko”, complete with George Martin style tape loops.

Louise Jordan | Florilegium | Album Review | Azania | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 19.09.12

This charming follow up to Louise Jordan’s 2011 debut album Tempvs once again showcases the Salisbury-born composer’s distinctive and precise vocal delivery with a dozen new selections.  The original songs such as “Edge of Dreaming” and “Brave Face” are placed alongside a couple of non-originals, including the Irish traditional “I Know Where I’m Going” and Christina Rossetti’s poem “Promises Like Pie-Crust”, set to a new arrangement.  Gathering together a bouquet of elements, such as the parchment cover design, the floral motifs, the white wedding dress and the title Florilegium, which is a literal translation from the Medieval Latin for ‘a gathering of flowers’, Louise brings all the parts together to form a fine personal statement, which serves to describe her current place in the world.  Produced and engineered by Louise herself, accompanying herself on guitar, piano and cello, Florilegium, stands as testament to a blossoming new talent, with songs so delicate as to conjure up scenes from Hardy-esque rural England, all told in her own unique and individual style.  A little gem.  

Scott Cook | Moonlit Rambles | Album Review | Groove Revival | 20.09.12

With a gentle yet cutting opener, Canadian singer-songwriter Scott Cook tells it precisely as it is with “Song for the Slow Dancer”, a song that laments the death of the music industry amongst other things, yet at the same time thankfully praises the future of our on-going musical endeavours, our community radio and our increasingly popular house concerts.  Once this is straight, then the rest of the album, Cook’s third to date, continues to keep the listener engaged with a bunch of songs that mean something.  Described as a ‘new love letter to the world’, Moonlit Rambles doesn’t ramble exactly, rather it shines a light along the path.  This is the fifth album release by the multi-instrumental husband and wife team Andrea and Buddy Freebury, whose gentle folk songs are treated to some atmospheric arrangements, whether they be self-penned (individually composed or co-written) or borrowed from elsewhere, such as Steve Knightley’s “Cousin Jack” and Kate Rusby’s “Falling”, both included here.  Produced by Buddy and recorded at Chaos Studios in Cardigan, Wales, Rise Up tackles themes ranging from friendship and mortality to our wonderful coastlines and in particular our mining heritage.  There’s also a poignant protest aimed at those who seem determined to prolong our current political and economical depression with the title song “Rise Up”.  One of the standout songs included here is the jointly-written composition “The Bell”, whose distinctly eerie atmosphere is heightened by the church bell that tolls throughout.  Joining the Freebury’s are a handful of guest musicians including Amanda and Mark Hadlett, Glenn Coggin, Sam Coles and Maria Barham, who takes the lead vocal on the traditional “My Johnny Was a Shoemaker”.  And if that wasn’t all, each of the musicians get their own caricature on the sleeve artwork.  I want one of them for sure.

Green Diesel | Now Is The Time | Album Review | Self Release | 21.09.12

Debut album release by Kent-based retro-folk-rock sextet Green Diesel, whose exuberance and enthusiasm spills out of the thirteen songs and tunes included here.  Formed in 2009, the band has gained a steady reputation around the south of England and has now begun to branch out nationally armed with a growing repertoire of both traditional and contemporary songs together with the band’s own self-penned material.  Opening with Steve Ashley’s “Fire and Wine”, the original songs sit well alongside the traditional “Rosemary Lane” and “Rolling Sea”, with one or two delicate piano interludes.  Contained within some retro-feel sepia sleeve artwork, the songs and tunes on Now Is The Time clearly demonstrate the work of a band dedicated to contemporary British folk music.

Mary Coughlan | The Whole Affair | Album Review | Hail Mary Records | 21.09.12

For those of us who were around to receive Mary Coughan’s debut album Tired And Emotional back in 1985 will be instantly gratified to find the utterly gorgeous “Double Cross” taking its rightful place as the opener to this double album retrospective of Coughlan’s very best songs.  If we want to be transported back in time by roughly twenty-seven years, then some of these early songs are possibly the best way to do it.  The sultry The Beach still excites a quarter of a century on as does “Seduced”, but it’s not all about that unforgettable debut, there’s so much more besides.  Perhaps the greatest of all Irish-born singers, Coughlan’s place in the great scheme of things is right up there with Billie Holliday and Edith Piaf.  Surrounding herself always with first class musicians, Coughlan’s performances on record and on-stage not only reveal a stunning singer and storyteller, but also a real, alive and unpretentious presence.   Lavishly packaged, The Whole Affair is divided into two parts, disc one predominantly packed with twenty audience favourites taken from seven studio albums, while the second disc features fifteen live personal favourites from an artist who has a lot of favourites to choose from.  If you only buy one retrospective this year, make sure it’s this one.

Simon McBride | Crossing the Line | Album Review | Nugene | 21.09.12

With hard-rocking bluesman Simon McBride’s latest release Crossing The Line, we not only see one of Ireland’s leading guitar technicians in action but also one of the country’s most promising songwriters in the Blues genre.  Produced by McBride with the assistance of legendary guitar maker Paul Reed Smith, the fourth album to date features Paul Hamilton on drums and Carl Harvey on bass and features nine original blues numbers with the addition of the old Blood Sweat and Tears song “Go Down Gamblin’” and fellow Belfast songwriter Gareth Dunlop’s soulful “Home To Me”.  Occasionally reminiscent of early Free, the blues based rock songs such as opener “Lead Us Away” and the acoustic “A Rock and a Storm”, also reveal a strong vocal delivery, in much the same vein as Paul Rodgers.  

James J Turner | How Could We Be Wrong | Album Review | Touch the Moon | 22.09.12

Liverpool-born singer-songwriter and former frontman with The Electric Morning, James J Turner takes hold of his hometown’s rich heritage in music, returning to the roots of the music that has provided Liverpool with a vibrant soundtrack for so many years.  Following Turner’s debut solo The Believer (2009), this new collection of self-penned songs take rootsy acoustic instrumentation including fiddle, accordion, mandolin, whistles and bodhran and team up with a rock-based rhythm section to deliver a strong and vibrant folk-rock album.  With one or two anthemic moments such as “Beyond the Pain” and “Once Upon a Time” the album can occasionally lean towards lighter fluffy sing-along territory such as “Let Love Into Your Heart”.

James Findlay | Another Day Another Story | Album Review | Fellside | 23.09.12

With this follow up to Fellside’s Sport And Play (2011), James Findlay continues to develop as an outstanding new voice on the British folk scene.  The young Dorset-born singer, guitarist and fiddle player chooses to stick predominantly with songs from close to home, the counties of Dorset and Somerset in particular, with a selection of songs from the Roud folk song index, including well known songs such as “The Cuckoo”, “Death and the Lady” and “The Brisk Young Widow”.  Equally at home with both guitar accompanied songs and unaccompanied songs such as the sprawling Scots ballad “Long Lamkin”, James maintains a careful eye for detail and presents each song in an uncluttered manner.  Co-produced by Paul Adams, James once again demonstrates his credentials as a formidable guitar player and is joined by Alex Cumming on accordion with contributions courtesy of singers Beth Orrell and Linda Adams.

Lau | Race the Loser | Album Review | Reveal | 24.09.12

The showcasing of any new material at a Lau concert is always something of an event, as is any new recorded material.  Lau’s third studio album is a mixture of clever arrangements and adventurous musicianship, featuring three of the folk scene’s most thrilling musicians, Kris Drever on guitar and occasional vocals, Martin Green on accordion and various bits and bobs he keeps at his feet and Aidan O’Rourke on fiddle.  Unanimously agreed upon that Lau are essentially a peerless live band, the trio do manage to decorate their studio performances with those little extra touches that make up for the lack of visuals.  Take for instance whatever Martin Green is doing with his box on “Far From Portland”, which is far from anything I’ve heard outside a Penguin Cafe Orchestra ‘piece’ methinks.  The idea is then repeated throughout “Throwing Pennies”.  Full of drama, spirit and musical dexterity, Race The Loser keeps both the band and the audience on their toes for the duration of the record.  Yes, Lau sometimes put the listener under their spell with trance-like chamber compositions that steadily climb what sometimes feels like a mountain with a very gentle gradient, but the rewards at the peak are worth the wait; often this is when Martin Green transforms his accordion into a machine capable of mass sonic destruction.  Then there are moments of beauty, usually delivered via Kris Drever’s gentle guitar passages and Aidan O’Rourke’s empathetic fiddle playing.  Only three studio albums and a live offering in and Lau continue to surpass our expectations both on record and in concert.

Cahalen Morrison and Eli West | Our Lady of the Trees | Album Review | Self Release | 25.09.12

With his roots firmly planted in northern New Mexico, Cahalen Morrison has lived and breathed his music from an early age, studying jazz percussion in college and drums in a roots reggae band before picking up the banjo and mandolin in order to write a bunch of exceptionally good songs.  Upon meeting with Seattle-based musician Eli West, the two musicians hit it off immediately and subsequently released their debut record The Holy Coming Of The Storm, which garnered some impressive attention from the likes of Tim O’Brien in the US and Bob Harris in the UK.  The duo’s second album Our Lady Of The Tall Trees indicates that there’s no stopping these two musicians and with a dozen predominantly original songs, that musical dexterity and mutual understanding of the material is once again demonstrated here.  With the one traditional song “The Poor Cowboy” together with a couple of covers, Townes Van Zandt’s “Loretta” and Norman Blake’s “Church Street Blues”, the song writing is pretty much exclusively down to Morrison, whose songs sound every bit authentic bluegrass as anything else in the genre.  With a clear grounding in old time and bluegrass, Cahalen and Eli perform with an empathetic flair, each voice and instrument dove-tailing perfectly to create that spine-tingling music that not everyone can do.  Although most of the songs are written by Morrison, you can’t help but feel that the magic in these songs comes from the carefully worked out arrangements and the extraordinary performances.

Galley Beggar | Galley Beggar | Album Review | Self Release | 28.09.12

The cover photograph for the second album by London-based sextet Galley Beggar suggests something old is spilling out of the trunk in the loft; perhaps its late 1960s and early 1970s English folk rock itself that’s been hidden away, while folk music has twisted and turned through bouts of brassy brashness and brassy ambience (Bellowhead and The Unthanks spring to mind), with good old folk rock taking a back seat for so long.  Some may want to keep the chest straps belted tight on the music of a band that cites Fairport, Pentangle and Led Zeppelin as major influences, others however, me included, welcomes this resurgence of interest in the music of our youth.  Nostalgic in places, the bright and sprightly arrangements keep the album moving along at a good pace, with extended Wishbone Ash-like guitar solos, either electric or acoustic, which are delivered with much enthusiasm, just like in the good old days.  Galley Beggar are unashamedly retro, who not only play the part but also dress the part.  They could easily be mistaken for any of the bands represented on the Island sampler albums of the early 1970s, with Pre-Raphaelite dresses (the women of course) and black velvet jackets, flaired jeans and paisley patterned shirts.  This is in no way representative of the music on the album but it all adds to the mystique.  The instrumentation is pretty standard folk rock fair with Paul Dadswell on drums and percussion, David Ellis and Mat Folwer on guitars and mandolins, Bill Lynn on bass, Celine Marshall on violin and last but certainly not least, Maria O’Donnell taking care of lead vocals.  The songs are pretty much divided equally between self-penned and traditional arrangements of familiar material such as “Nottamun Town”, “John Barleycorn” and “Rendell”, one of the many versions of the traditional ballad “Lord Randall”.  If you fancy a taste of well-intentioned retro folk rock, Galley Beggar’s your band.

Show of Hands | Wake The Union | Album Review | Self Release | 01.10.12

The thirteenth studio album by one of Britain’s most enduring acoustic roots duos features fifteen new songs predominantly from the pen of chief songwriter Steve Knightley, with a little help from Seth Lakeman on the opening song “Haunt You”, together with Chris Hoban’s hauntingly beautiful ode to New Orleans “Katrina”, Bob Dylan’s obscure cowboy song “Seven Curses” and Richard Shindell’s Prairie ballad “Reunion Hill”.  Known for his distinctly English songs, the material on Wake The Union tends to straddle the border of what we now know as Americana in places, but with the band’s British acoustic roots still showing.  The cover shot of a well-travelled guitar maps out the journey these songs represent with little or no ambiguity.  Although one or two songs might be familiar to anyone present at a recent Show of Hands gig, such as the crowd pleasing anthem “Now You Know” or the Chumbawamba-esque “Stop Copying Me”, much of the album is entirely new.  With contributions from an impressive array of musicians such as Martin Simpson, Seth Lakeman, BJ Cole, Andy Cutting, Paul Sartin, Cormac Byrne, Paul Downes, Rex Preston and Jenna Witts, the Mark Tucker produced album also  features Phil Henry and Hannah Martin, the duo who accompanied Show of Hands on their last tour and also The Duhks banjo player Leonard Podolak, who along with fiddler Matt Gordon will accompany the band on their forthcoming Autumn tour.  I’m assuming, and I will accept the QI klaxon if I’m wrong, that the final song on Wake The Union will provide Steve and Phil and not forgetting the now firmly established third pair of hands, double bassist Miranda Sykes, with a tailor-made finisher for each of their forthcoming shows.  Thanks effectively gives a big thank you to everybody, not only for coming to the gig, but for staying with the duo for the last twenty years. 

Maeve MacKinnon | Once Upon an Olive Branch | Album Review | Self Release | 02.10.12

Once Upon An Olive Branch is the second solo album by Scots singer Maeve MacKinnon, the follow up to 2007’s Don’t Sing Love Songs and once again showcases the singer’s range in both English and Gaelic.  The balance is just about right, with fine accompaniment from Fraser Fifield on whistles and sax, Innes Watson on guitar and fiddle, Signy Jacobsdottir on percussion and James Lindsay on bass.  Produced by Angus Lyon, the album also heralds MacKinnon’s debut as a songwriter with “The Olive Branch”, from which the album’s title derives, not only demonstrating her burgeoning talent as a songwriter but also her commitment to humanitarian issues, something that runs in the family.  With some fine interpretations of traditional songs such as “She Moved Through the Fair” and “Kind Friends and Companions”, the album closes with an assured performance of Ewan Maccoll’s “The Father’s Song”, once again reminding us what a true poet Maccoll was. 

Lorraine McCauley and the Borderlands | Light in the Darkness Corners | Album Review | Self Release | 03.10.12

Ten original songs from the Edinburgh-based acoustic quartet led by Donegal-born Lorraine McCauley, whose voice these songs are centred around.  All ten songs are written by McCauley, whose voice alone and guitar accompaniment could easily be enough for these songs to rest upon.  Having said that, the Borderlands, which consists of Jonathan Duggan on accordion and glockenspiel, Nick Jenkins on fiddle, mandolin and viola and Billy Hamilton on cello, provide the songs with all the necessary ingredients to make them shine even more, besides all four musicians are credited to have arranged each of the titles.  Produced by Jonathan Duggan, the album sounds contemporary with an ethereal quality that borders on nu-folk, particularly on songs such as “Goddess” which features Maxwell the Miller’s theremin. 

Franka De Mille | Bridge the Roads | Album Review | Chi Wara Music | 04.10.12

The debut album from London-based singer-songwriter Franka De Mille features nine original songs, including a repeated ‘unplugged’ version of standout song “Gare Du Nord”, with each selection treated to a rich arrangement, featuring a mixture of guitar, violin, cello, accordion and piano accompaniment.  With a strong sense of melody, De Mille’s personal lyrics form the basis of the songs, with subjects ranging from family grief in “Birds” and confessional sibling outpourings in the aforementioned “Gare du Nord”.  Occasionally sounding a little like Patti Smith, especially on “So Long”, Franka De Mille finds herself at the helme of a well-intentioned debut. 

Southern Tenant Folk Union | Men in Robes | Album Review | Johnny Rock Records | 07.10.12

With a good stomping lead song, this new four-track single from Edinburgh-based Sci-Fi bluegrass outfit Southern Tenant Folk Union indicates what’s to come on the band’s soon to be released fifth album.  “Men in Robes” features a strong and strident bass line throughout with a cheerful harmonica filling in between verses.  Accompanying this is the much gentler ‘b side’, the haunting “Dark Passenger”, featuring a lead vocal courtesy of fiddle player and singer Carrie Thomas.  With two bonus tracks, the jaunty “Juniper Blossom”, again featuring the voice and fiddle of Carrie Thomas, together with a standard up-tempo bluegrass instrumental entitled “Bottle to Throttle”, written by mandolin player Adam Bulley after a worrying conversation with an airline pilot who claimed to know the ‘bottle to throttle’ ratio enforced by airline unions; namely the amount of time you can legally fly an aircraft after having a pint.  Not the best chap to bump into in the bar before take off. 

Absolution | Issues | Album Review | KrossBorder Rekords | 08.10.12

With its deceiving cover artwork, which wouldn’t be out of place in the nether regions of the Death Metal album browser in a back street Camden record outlet, brutally emblazoned with blood red guitar image and Gothic typeface, the debut from three-piece British blues outfit Absolution couldn’t be further from it.  With a solid blues base, the dozen original songs, written and recorded in a short space of time, sound fresh and youthful, with each composition treated to a tight arrangement.  With songs predominantly written by guitarist/singer Joe Fawcett, the band’s rhythm section of Ben Gardner on bass and Doug Lang on drums share the arrangement credits.  Covering the whole blues spectrum with smoky slow blues workouts such as “Slipping Away” and “Cross the Void”, the trio can rock out like the best on such numbers as “Blind Man Crying” and “Temperature”, while for all intents and purposes riding the rails on the funky opener “Train Ride”.  

Cowbois Rhos Botwnnog | Draw Dros y Myndd | Album Review | Sbrigyn Ymborth | 09.10.12

Gentle country sounds from three-piece sibling band Cowbois Rhos Botwnnog who write and sing in their native Welsh language.  Taking their name from their home village in the Llyn Peninsula, North Wales, the trio create a gentle form of acoustic country rock with the occasional folk element.  On this the band’s third album, the Hughes brothers Iwan, Aled and Dafydd have written the bulk of the material with the one traditional arrangement of “Deio Bach” sung by guest musician Branwen Williams and one non-original, the almost spiritual Gwilym Morus song “Cyn Iddi Fynd Rhy Hwyr”.  For a well-rounded example of the Cowbois Rhos Botwnnog sound, look no further than “Yno Fydda I”.

Bellowhead | Broadside | Album Review | Navigator | 10.10.12

The fourth studio album by the eleven-piece powerhouse folk combo Bellowhead, once again features a bunch of familiar and not so familiar traditional songs, transformed into blistering brass creations that bellow through the speakers.  It’s all pretty theatrical and beautifully over the top as usual with the occasional venture into really sweet orchestral arrangements, the climax to “Thousands or More” for instance, which demonstrates perfectly the band’s credentials as arrangers.  Occasionally the theatrical aspect of Bellowhead comes over as a West End pastiche, such as “What’s the Life of Man”, which would have Andrew Lloyd Webber dreaming up another bizarre TV talent show to find its leading protagonists.  Fortunately a CD player has a skip function.  On the other hand, after “The Wife of Usher’s Well” has reached its dramatic climax, one is just about ready for the spirited “Lillibulero”, which I can imagine will have audiences on their feet during the band’s forthcoming tour.  Nobody can really argue that Bellowhead are a highly spirited and exciting live act that appeals to festival audiences who want to let their hair down at the end of the night; let’s face it, not many acts could follow them.  Fortunately, Bellowhead the recording band manage to capture the feel of those performances on record and Broadside is no exception.

Mary Gauthier | Live at Blue Rock | Album Review | Proper | 12.10.12

Twelve years and six albums into a fruitful career, New Orleans-born singer-songwriter Mary Gauthier releases her first live album, which features a selection of songs that have defined her troubled life thus far.  Orphaned in New Orleans before being adopted, then raised in Baton Rouge followed by drugs, alcohol, halfway houses and rehabilitation, even spending her eighteenth birthday in jail, the rocky life of this true folk troubadour has been chronicled in her songs along the way.  Recorded at the Blue Rock Artist Ranch and Studio just outside Austin, the eight original and three Fred Eaglesmith songs take us on an autobiographical journey, with stories of hobos, junkies, cigarette machines, drag queens and limousines, each demonstrating Gauthier’s command over story-telling, whether the songs are hers or others.  

The Outside Track | Flash Company | Album Review | Lorimar Records | 14.10.12

The third album release by international acoustic roots band The Outside Track once again showcases the outstanding talents of five young musicians from Canada, Ireland and Scotland.  The eleven songs and tunes successfully blends the sound of those three areas in particular, with the occasional English ballad thrown in the mix for good measure.  A thoroughly engaging live act, the band captures some of that energy in their studio albums and Flash Company is no exception.  Equipped with fiddle, accordion, harp, guitar, flute, a few step-dance routines and deliciously rich vocals, these five musicians dove-tail perfectly to provide their unique sound.  With Norah Rendell on flute, Mairi Rankin on fiddle, Ailie Robertson on harp, Fiona Black on accordion and Cillian O’Dalaigh on guitar, the Outside Track deliver well known traditional songs such as “False Knight on the Road!”, “Whitby Maid” and the title song “Flash Company”, with a little help from their friends Duncan Lyall, Ewan Baird, Chris Peacock, Euan Burton and Jim Sutherland providing the rhythm section.  With “Mountain Road” already released as the first single from the album, the band invites us all to join in on the infectious chorus.  A gorgeous album.  

The Fretless | Waterbound | Album Review | Self Release | 16.10.12

The very name under which this Canadian quartet go clearly indicates that there is not going to be a fret in sight, a notion confirmed by the cover shot showing three violinists, who alternate between violin and viola, together with a cellist, playing the violin’s big brother.  This indicates that the music contained within is going to be performed by a string quartet, but by a young band whose formal tuxedos are replaced by casual dress suggesting that the Brahms, Haydn and Verdi’s are going to be put aside temporarily to make way for a bit of a knees up.  The first few notes of the opening tune “Box Man” could go either way, with its steady cello introduction, followed by some sprightly chamber folk that could easily accompany Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy, as they glide through the “Netherfield Ballroom”.  This all changes before the end of the tune, with a clear indication that The Fretless are all about mixing it up, bringing in Celtic and folk elements in a most pleasing way.  It’s music to smile to; rich in texture and highly dextrous that would ideally be suited to Classical listeners who are curious as to what folk music is all about and equally to folk enthusiasts who don’t mind a bit of Vivaldi.  If this wasn’t enough (and it really is), then there’s also a couple of guest vocalists adding their distinctive voices to the set, with Wailin’ Jenny Ruth Moody delivering the title song “Waterbound” and Norah Rendell doing what she does so well with her own band The Outside Track on Karine Polwart’s “Harder To Walk These Days Than Run”.  Produced by The Fretless along with Joby Baker in Victoria, British Columbia, Waterbound features Trent Freeman, Ivonne Hernandez and Karrnnel Sawitsky on violin and viola and Eric Wright on cello.  Trent Freeman’s feet can also be heard on the final tune “Growlin’”.

Blair Dunlop | Blight and Blossom | Album Review | Rooksmere Records | 18.10.12

Blair Dunlop’s first full-length album release seems to have been a long time coming.  This is presumably because of his busy schedule over the last couple of years, which has seen the young singer not only embark on his own solo career but also take over dad’s 40 year-old band in the process.  Anyone who’s spent just five minutes with Blair will know that he is obsessed with football, colourful cardigans and music, with a penchant for wearing his strides halfway down his legs and sculpting his hair as if he was auditioning for a place in a Duran Duran tribute band.  His boyish charms are unavoidable, his humour engaging and his outgoing nature rather intoxicating, yet when it comes to standing in front of an audience to deliver his songs, he becomes focused, semi-serious and actually professional.  One or two songs on the album have seen the light of day before, either on Blair’s initial EP with “Black is the Colour” and then again with “Young Billy in the Lowground”, “Fallout” and the self-penned title song from his second EP Bags Outside the Door.  Those songs have been re-worked with the help of one or two special guests such as Rebecca and Megan Lovell of the outstanding Georgia band Larkin Poe, not to mention that band’s rhythm section of Rick Lollar on guitar and Chad Melton on drums.  New life has been breathed into the arrangements with Rebecca Lovell duetting on the traditional “Black is the Colour”, while the Guv’nor himself makes a fleeting appearance on the outstanding “Billy in the Lowground”.  There are one or two other notable appearances including Joan Wasser aka Joan as Policewoman adding vocals, Pete Zorn on sax and multi-instrumentalist Guy Fletcher adding texture to a few of the songs.  Most of the songs are self-penned with the exception of the two aforementioned traditional songs along with Shawn Colvin’s “Trouble” and Richard Thompson’s previously unreleased “Seven Brothers”, which receives a special mention in the credits.  It’s not just the music that makes Blight And Blossom stand out; Blair has employed the services of Elly Lucas, one of the country’s most imaginative young photographers, who has adorned this debut album with some delightfully original primitive-styled artwork.  With all those embellishments in place, both visual and auditory, the focus of Blight And Blossom is Blair Dunlop himself; his crisp and concise guitar playing, his unmistakably mature voice and his aptitude for creating atmosphere throughout.  A fine and assured debut.

Matraca Berg | Love’s Truck Stop | Album Review | Proper | 19.10.12

For the sixth album in a twenty-two year recording career, Nashville’s Grammy-nominated Matraca Berg delivers eleven new self-penned songs, each demonstrating the singer-songwriter’s credentials as one of Nashville’s quality-consistent songwriting talents.  The songs are populated by richly observed characters, not unlike the great American novel; of small town waitresses, alcoholics, prostitutes and the colourfully downtrodden, those desperate for something else, something better at least.  Wearing the iconic Gram Parsons and the Fallen Angels T-shirt on the reverse of the album sleeve, Berg hints at that special moment carved into the annals of country music, while Parsons’ one time duetting partner Emmylou Harris makes an appearance on the show-stopping “Magdalene”.

Sandy Denny | The Notes and Words: A Collection of Demos and Rarities | Album Review | UMC/Island | 27.10.12

In November 2010 the remarkable 19-disc Sandy Denny Box Set was released to an enthusiastic response from fans and collectors alike, all eager to have all their Sandy Denny material in one compact box.  The 316 track retrospective, which compiler Andrew Batt described as his ‘labour of love’, proved that there is still a strong demand for Sandy Denny’s material, as each of those limited edition boxes has been snapped up.  For those Denny fans who thought the £149.99 price tag was a little too much out of their budget range, especially in view of the fact that they probably had half of the recordings already on various media including compact disc, vinyl, audio cassette or Heaven forbid the ‘8-track endless loop cartridge’, this new 4-CD set will more than likely come as good news. The Notes And The Words features 75 of the rarities, demos and outtakes accompanying the officially released material on the original box set, including 17 early home recordings, the first known recording of “Who Knows Where The Time Goes”, take one of both “Come All Ye” and “Matty Groves” from the legendary Liege and Lief sessions, a demo of “Lord Bateman”, considered the Holy Grail of Denny’s recordings, together with many other goodies besides.  In light of Thea Gilmore’s recent album of Denny’s unreleased and widely unknown songs, together with the short concert tour that went under the banner of The Lady: A Homage to Sandy Denny, featuring some of Denny’s collaborators such as Dave Swarbrick and Jerry Donoghue, as well as some of Denny’s more recent converts such as Joan Wasser, Blair Dunlop and Sam Carter, it’s rather nice to hear the lady herself once again, in what in some instances sounds even more intimate than before.

Mary Dillon | John Condon | Album Review | Black Lane Records | 28.10.12

As we eagerly await the much anticipated debut solo album by Irish singer Mary Dillon, due for release in February 2013, the former Déanta singer and elder sister of Cara Dillon has provided a taster of what’s to come with the release of a digital download of the moving John Condon, one of the ten songs from the album North.  The gentle sound and haunting subject matter provides the perfect backdrop to showcase the purity of Mary’s voice.  Lamenting our war casualties who rest eternally in Belgian cemeteries and in particular a 14 year-old boy and his part in the Great War, the song which was recorded in Dungiven, Co. Derry and co-produced with Mary’s nephew Odhrán Mullan, is released in timely fashion, to coincide with Remembrance Day on Sunday 11 November. 

Moulettes | The Bear’s Revenge | Album Review | Balling the Jack Records | 01.11.12

It may surprise some to discover that Moulettes have been together for a good ten years now, with just one previous full-length album to their credit.  This, their second album, is almost testament to the band’s character, which showcases some outstanding musicianship and flair for arrangement.  Formed in Glastonbury in 2002, Moulettes have built on their reputation of being one of the most charismatic bands on the acoustic music scene today, criss-crossing genres with a fearless sense of abandon, including classical, jazz, folk and prog-rock to create their own unique sound.  The Bear’s Revenge opens with the band’s previously released single “Sing Unto Me”, which clearly demonstrates the band’s penchant for surreal imagery and ethereal atmosphere that continues throughout the dozen songs.  The instantly accessible and soon to be released follow-up single “Uca’s Dance”, incorporates all the swirling musical motifs that gives Moulette’s their distinctive sound.  The extraordinary playing continues throughout, with “Unlock the Doors” finding the band at their most exhilarating best.  With Mumford & Sons’ double bassist Ted Dwane returning to the Moulettes fold for these album sessions, the current line-up for this album is Hannah Miller on cello, guitar and vocals, Ollie Austin on drums, guitar and backing vocals, Georgina Leach on violin and backing vocals, Ruth Skipper on bassoon, autoharp and vocals, Rob Arcari on percussion and backing vocals, Jim Mortimore on double bass, banjo, guitar and backing vocals and Faye Houston on vocals.

Matt Gordon and Leonard Podolak | Three Thin Dimes | Album Review | RootBeat Records | 02.11.12

Currently on tour in the UK with Show of Hands, Matt Gordon and Leonard Podolak open each show by demonstrating their Appalachian chops with a tantalising blend of 5-String clawhammer banjo and real down home fiddle playing and with the odd step dance and hambone routine thrown in.  Best known as the banjo picker with Canadian band The Duhks, Leonard Podolak teams up with fiddler Matt Gordon, together with producer/guitarist Bill Shanley to release Three Thin Dimes, a feast of old time songs and dance tunes played with both authenticity and assurance, including “Coo Coo Bird” and “Mole in the Ground”, both featuring Dervish singer/bodhran player Cathy Jordan. 

Session A9 | Session A9 | Album Review | Raj Records | 02.11.12

‘Supergroup’ is an over-used term these days, bearing in mind the vast number of virtuoso musicians that inhabit the almost incestuous acoustic music scene, but in the case of Session A9, the moniker fits like a glove.  With a series of line-up changes over the last few years, the band has always maintained quality throughout with highly-praised musicians such as Tim Edey, Kris Drever, Duncan Chisholm, Ross Martin and Iain Copeland, each having occupied a place within the band’s ranks.  With the current line-up of Adam Sutherland, Brian Mcalpine, Charlie Mckerron, David ‘chimp’ Robertson, Gordon Gunn, Kevin Henderson and Marc Clement, the band release their third studio album.  The eponymous Session A9 features three well-chosen songs and six inventive instrumentals, each demonstrating the band’s credentials as a tight and exciting unit.  Jackson Browne’s much covered “These Days” gets another welcome airing, joining the likes of Nico, 10,000 Maniacs and Glen Campbell, who all recorded the song at some point.  Session A9’s version, featuring a convincing vocal performance by Marc Clement, demonstrates perfectly well that the band are not only good for an end of festival knees-up, but have the chops to deliver a good song or two as well.  The same can be said for the band’s versions of Karine Polwart’s “Dig a Little Well for Zoe” and John Martyn’s “One For the Road”.

The Shee | Murmurtations | Album Review | Self Release | 03.11.12

The Shee conclude their successful festival season with the release of Murmurations, their third album to date and follow up to last year’s acclaimed Decadence, which in turn followed their 2010 debut A Different Season.  The all-female band, which has been mesmerising festival audiences over the last couple of years have now gelled into a tight unit, featuring the vocal and instrumental power of six fine musicians, Lillias Kinsman-Blake on flute, Shona Mooney on fiddle, Rachel Newton on harp, clarsach and vocals, Amy Thatcher on accordion and accordion (who also slips on her clogs from time to time), Olivia Ross on fiddle, viola and vocals and last but certainly not least, Laura-Beth Salter on mandolin and vocals.  Produced by Duncan Lyall, the eleven selections on Murmurations range between traditional songs and tunes with some highly original material such as Laura-Beth’s “Our Bottle” and Rachel’s eerily spooky movie soundtrack “Northern Frisk” incorporating “Creepy Carousel”.  I imagine bringing material to the table is pretty much the easy part of the Shee’s endeavours; it’s what the six musicians do in terms of arrangement where the magic lies.  Special mention should also be given to the album’s artwork which was created by the band’s flautist Lillias Kinsman-Blake, whose concept of making each individual sleeve design unique came from the idea of ‘the endlessly evolving flight patterns of Starlings’.  This album should really be flying off the shelves.

Ian Siegal and the Mississippi Mudbloods | Candy Store Kid | Album Review | Nugene | 19.11.12

Ian Siegal’s career seems to be going from strength to strength since topping the Mojo blues chart three years ago with his Broadside album, the first win for a non-American artist.  His follow up album The Skinny was also nominated for a Blues Music Award in the ‘contemporary album’ category, once again, unique at the time for a British artist.  Recorded at Zebra Ranch in Coldwater, Mississippi, Candy Store Kid picks up where the previous album left off, with Siegal teaming up with Cody Dickinson, Luther Dickinson and Alvin Youngblood Hart, who between them create an authentic Deep South sound throughout.  With the album title deriving from a lyric in the song “Loose Cannon”, Siegal makes no secret of the fact that for a British blues musician, this environment is fittingly described and utterly conducive to the music he is currently making.  With a bluesy swamp rock feel, soulfully enriched by the vocal prowess of backing singers Stefanie Bolton and Sharisse and Shontelle Norman, Candy Store Kid also features guest appearances by Garry Burnside and Lightnin’ Malcolm.  

Drew Nelson | Tilt-a-Whirl | Album Review | Red House | 20.11.12

Following on from the success of Drew Nelson’s 2009 album Dusty Road To Bulah Land, the Michigan-born singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist returns with Tilt-A-Whirl, which once again blends rootsy American rock with older traditional folk music styles.  Dusty Road impressed Red House Records so much that they signed him up immediately and the resulting album showcases eleven new self-penned songs, each treated to fine arrangements augmented by a well selected cast of musicians.  With the title paying homage to the popular fairground ride, known in the UK as the Waltzer, the songs reflect the constantly spinning dizziness as well as drawing on the rich variety of characters from everyday life.  From storm clouds, dusty highways and black flies to the gospel-tinged “St Jude” and the lessons we learn in life, Nelson takes us on a road trip, in much the same we feel after hearing Springsteen, Earle and Mellencamp.  Produced by Michael Crittenden, Tilt-A-Whirl has several stories to tell, told by a storyteller who’s been on both sides of the track.

The Leon Hunt n-Tet | Farewell Blues | Album Review | Get Real | 24.11.12

British 5-string banjo maestro Leon Hunt pays homage to his hero, the late Earl Scruggs with a dozen familiar Bluegrass favourites.  Suitably supported by three staggeringly good musicians in Jason Titley on guitar, Ben Somers on bass and Joe Hymas on mandolin, the ‘n-Tet’ each throw in some excellent vocal harmonies that often beggars the question ‘are these really all Brits?’  Looking a little like Gram Parsons’ older brother, Leon Hunt carries off the authenticity of this music by simply living and breathing it; maintaining the fun element of Bluegrass while at the same time offering up some virtuosic playing.  With Scruggs’ own “Foggy Mountain Special”, a couple of traditional songs including “Little Maggie” and the thoroughly uplifting “Salty Dog Blues”, the band also pay tribute to the first father of Bluegrass Bill Monroe with “Little Cabin Home on the Hill”.  In the wake of the passing of Earl Scruggs in March 2012, the band heard of the death of another fine bluegrass picker Doc Watson and “Deep River Blues” was quickly added.  A homage to the life and work of Doc Watson is clearly another chapter altogether.  

Calum Stewart and Lauren MacColl | Wooden Flute and Fiddle | Album Review | Make Believe Records | 25.11.12

One can only imagine good things to arise out of Calum Stewart and Lauren MacColl’s new musical partnership as they release their debut instrumental album as a duo just prior to their forthcoming appearance at Celtic Connections 2013.  As the former Manran flautist Calum Stewart meets up with fiddler and BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award winner (as a soloist) Lauren MacColl, the dove-tailing of musical ingenuity begins with predictable results.  With ten pieces either self-penned or based upon ancient traditional tunes, the duo breathe (and bow) new life into the music of their heritage.  The wooden instruments are complemented by some fine accompaniment courtesy of Éamon Doorley on bouzouki and Andy May on harmonium.  Rooted in the traditions of their native Scotland and in particular the Moray and Black Isles regions, the duo skilfully blend their influences to reveal something uniquely their own.  Adopting the older rituals of retuning the fiddle to introduce new and interesting textures, Lauren provides the perfect counterpart to complement the breathy consistency of Calum’s flute.

Iain Morrison | To The Horizon, Sir | Album Review | Proper | 26.11.12

Fresh from his appearance on the fifth series of the Transatlantic Sessions, singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Iain Morrison returns with his latest release To The Horizon, Sir, the fourth album on his own label, which once again reveals a musician endowed with a clear sense of atmosphere, or how to create one at least.  Bleak in places, the ten original songs have a brooding quality suitable for listeners who like the lights dimmed and the chair reclined.  The Glasgow-based former member of indie band Crash My Model Car, speeds up the tempo infrequently, which provides the listener with a sense of gentle tranquillity.  “My Calm” could in fact sum up the album.   Produced by Michael Chorney, the musician and arranger responsible for orchestrating Anais Mitchell’s superb Hadestown folk opera, who accompanied Mitchell on her recent UK tour, invited Morrison to his home studio in the hills of Vermont to put down some the songs here, with the help of Geza Carr on drums and Robinson Morse on double bass.  Returning to Scotland, Morrison completed the album with long-time collaborator Pete Harvey on cello.

Al Scorch and the Country Soul Ensemble | Tired Ghostly Town | Album Review | Self Release | 27.11.12

The opening song on Tired Ghostly Town is a punk-influenced assault, albeit with hillbilly instrumentation; never did the banjo seem so utterly aggressive.  The Chicago-based Al Scorch and the Country Soul Ensemble take elements of country, bluegrass and folk and present ten songs with a punk-ish attitude, each with an uncompromising in-your-face sonic sneer.  Recorded in a farmhouse in Georgia, the songs maintain a sense of immediacy throughout, with the musicians keeping the energy levels pretty much alive from one song to another.   The core line-up includes Al Scorch on vocals, banjo and Guitar, Charlie Malave on bass, Cris Castellan on percussion and Felipe Tobar on fiddle, with a handful of guest musicians helping out.  It’s not full on assault from start to finish, with one or two brief tender moments, including “Two Flags” – which having said that, still has a bit of a yell in the middle – as well as the title song, a lament to a small town industrial disaster, the atmosphere successfully captured on the sleeve artwork, courtesy of the quaintly named Damarak the Destroyer.

State of the Union | Rent | EP Review | Reveal | 01.12.12

Publicity wise, Boo Hewerdine and Brooks Williams otherwise known as State of the Union, are getting around quite a lot these days.  Not only was the Cambridge-based duo seen this summer doing a live session as part of this years’ Cambridge Folk Festival television coverage, but also popping up once again this week on Andrew Marr’s Sunday morning show, performing a bluesy version of the Pet Shop Boys number “Rent”, the title song of the duo’s latest EP, while a Spice Girl looked on no less.  In the introduction to that live performance, Boo claimed (in his usual humble and self depreciating manner) that his meeting with Brooks for the first time was a little bit like ‘Bob the Builder meeting Sir Christopher Wren’.  On the contrary, the two musicians complement each other on equal terms, both providing something special in everything they touch.  The EP not only features the title song but also three other covers, Dave Alvin’s “King of America”, Mercury Prize winners Alt J’s “Breezeblocks” and the gentle Guy Clark/Verlon Thompson joint composition “Boats to Build”.  A good broad section of styles in four songs.

Seth Lakeman | Live With The BBC Concert Orchestra | EP Review | Honour Oak | 02.12.12

Opening with “Blacksmith’s Prayer”, which for all intents and purposes sounds like “Venus in Furs” masquerading as a track from Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds concept album, this collaborative effort between the poster boy of the British folk world and the BBC Concert Orchestra joins the current trend in folk/orchestra/brass band partnerships, which includes the likes of Sharon Shannon and The Unthanks, with some interesting results.  While the arrangement of the opening song suggests a slight change in direction for Seth Lakeman, we only have to wait until track two for the familiar fiddle riffing to return, which dominates “Lady of the Sea” throughout.  Lakeman fans love this and their love is rewarded once again as “Kitty Jay” gets another airing.  For those of us desperately awaiting Lakeman to take a new direction and for “Kitty Jay” to finally be left to rest in peace, this EP comes just about halfway to a change.

Laurie Levine | Six Winters | Album Review | Rhythm Records | 03.12.12

Five years have passed since South Africa-born Laurie Levine released her debut album Unspoken in 2007, which was followed a couple of years later by Living Room in 2009.  During this time the Johannesburg-based singer-songwriter has been reaching audiences far and wide, picking up nominations for SAMAs (South African Music Awards) along the way and establishing a growing fan-base.  With this, Laurie’s third album Six Winters, produced by Dan Roberts, who also added a SAMA to his mantelpiece for his work on this album, Laurie continues to discover the deep roots of both her own South African heritage and also the various aspects of the music we now recognise as Americana.  Featuring just the one non-original song, the June Carter Cash/Merle Kilgore classic “Ring of Fire”, the album is for the most part made up of Laurie’s own songs, each of which demonstrates equal amounts of strength and vulnerability, especially on the title song, the Native American influenced “Oh Brother” and the sublime “Hand to My Heart”.  With some fine contributions by Wynand Davel on violin and regular musical partner Lize Wiid on accordion and keyboards, amongst others, Six Winters could easily be Laurie’s breakthrough album; and about time too.

Matheu Watson | Dunrobin Place | Album Review | Self Release | 04.12.12

The second album release and follow up to the eponymous debut of 2010 from multi-instrumentalist Matheu Watson comes with a deep understanding of instrumental Celtic music.  Over the years Watson has played with the best of them, from Dougie MacLean and Tim O’Brien to Salsa Celtica and the Treacherous Orchestra on a variety of instruments.  Mike Oldfield-like, Watson takes these instruments, including several types of guitar, fiddle, bouzouki, mandolin, tenor banjo, whistle, flute and keyboards, to name but a few, and builds his own orchestra of sound on a dozen instrumental pieces, for the most part self-composed with one or two arrangements of traditional and contemporary tunes also included.  Completely used to the studio, having contributed to over twenty albums to date and equally at home with the up-tempo dance tunes and slow ballads, Watson keeps things moving along throughout, which makes the record highly listenable.  Wrapped in a sleeve that represents the inner workings of the musical instrument, the bits of wood, metal and bone, reflects the magic created by the simple act of putting all the component parts together, as Watson does with the music.

J Shogren and Shanghai’d | God Bless These Crooked Little Songs | Album Review | Jaha | 06.12.12

With the release of God Bless These Crooked Little Songs, the Wyoming-based J Shogren invites us onto the dance floor as he and his band Shanghai’d deliver a handful of energy-driven numbers that exemplify what he refers to as ‘Pulp Americana’, which has nothing at all to do with Tom Russell singing Jarvis Cocker songs.  There’s lots going on here, with a nod to old time folk and country, rockabilly, jazz, blues and polka, all presented with a touch of the old Vaudevillian spirit.  Highly stylised with surprising tempo changes, the dozen songs take us on a journey through a vibrant, if sometimes crooked, landscape with an array of colourful characters along the way.  Upon entering J Shogren’s world of rootsy balladry, it becomes even more astonishing to discover that when not tinkering on the guitar, banjo, mandolin or lap steel, Professor Shogren lends his time to the endeavours of applied philosophy, even at one point serving as the King of Sweden’s special professor on environmental science and as a member of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize co-winners, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which probably make us listen to these songs in a different light.  There’s also a hidden treat for fans of both polka and Radiohead, with the inclusion of Creepolka at the end, which is guaranteed to leave you smiling.

John Fairhurst | Hungry Blues | EP Review | Self Release | 07.12.12

Blistering hard rocking blues from Wigan-born John Fairhurst featuring five original songs that the bluesman claims to have been collected from his time ‘busking around the streets of the world’.  With a voice reminiscent of Edgar Broughton and occasionally Tom Waits, Fairhurst spits out his lyrics with an uncompromising growl, especially on the opening cut “Up on the Hill”, while the title song “Hungry Blues” leans more towards a soulful gospel sound, incorporating the Hungry Blues Choir.  Recorded in London’s Dean Street Studio with resident engineer Alex Beitzke at the controls and James Breen on drums and percussion, the tracks laid down here reflect the power and energy of Fairhurst’s live performances.

Blame Sally | Live At KVIEO Studios | Album Review | Ninth Street Opus | 08.12.12

San Francisco’s all-female quartet Blame Sally provides mature sounds throughout on this the band’s first live album.  Recorded in Sacramento for a TV audience, the live performance captures the spirit of Blame Sally, with a highly textured performance that includes strong energy-driven songs such as “Living Without You” and “Big Big Bed” to some of Blame Sally’s most sensitive songs including “Mona Lisa Smile” and “If You Tell a Lie”, by way of the odd cover, a sweet take on Lindsay Buckingham’s Rumours-period “Never Going Back Again” for instance.  While younger ‘girl groups’ out there usually have their material written for them or indeed write about what they know, which is usually the first throws of romance, rubbish boyfriends or breaking a fingernail, this band of grown-up women songwriters makes all the difference in terms of writing about the real problems of approaching mid-life.  As Blame Sally enter their thirteenth year as a band, their individual voices ring true across thirteen songs that for all intents and purposes sound more like polished studio takes than live performances.  With each sharing vocal duties, the band consisting of Pam Delgado on drums, Renee Harcourt on guitar, mandolin, banjo, Jeri Jones on guitar and Monica Pasqual on keyboards and accordion are joined by Rob Strom on bass.

Hadrian’s Union | In Your Own Time | Album Review | Fellside | 16.12.12

I first became aware of Hadrian’s Union when the duo, consisting of Stew Simpson and Danny Hart, assisted Katriona Gilmore and Jamie Roberts to launch their third album The Innocent Left at the Trades Club in Barnsley back in September, sharing a supporting role with singer/songwriter Jessica Lawson.  Since then the duo have released their second full length album, the follow up to their debut Trapped In Time, once again utilising a temporal theme in its title and featuring a dozen original songs, written by Stew Simpson and sharing ‘tune’ composition credits with Danny Hart and fretless bass player Mike France.  Employing a similar instrumental set up as Show of Hands (guitar, fiddle, bass) and with a penchant for writing strong acoustic anthems, with such titles as “Stand Up”, “Roots and Reason” and “Are We There Yet?”, Hadrian’s Union have attracted some comparison to the Devonian ‘people’s band’, which could be seen as either flattering or cloying, a bit like bands that have been compared to The Beatles, the ultimate kiss of death in my opinion.  Best avoid comparisons I reckon.  Having beaten that notion out of the ring, the songs on In Your Own Time are quite accomplished, with strong and considered lyrics and evenly balanced arrangements.  Watch out for Simpson’s wryly observed and autobiographical “Extra Extra”, which references the author’s other occupation as a bit-part actor, which also features a cameo by producer Paul Adams, revealing precisely where the album title derives, in case you were wondering.

Birds of Chicago | Birds of Chicago | Album Review | Self Release | 30.12.12

Those who have encountered either Chicago’s JT and the Clouds or Vancouver’s Po’Girl, even if only for the briefest of moments, will already be aware that the lead singers of each of these two outfits are in possession of something very special indeed.  JT Nero and Allison Russell’s collaboration has been steadily brewing since they both appeared on each of their respective band’s most recent albums Caledonia and Follow Your Bliss.  This reciprocation was followed by the first full length album collaboration between the two musicians on JT Nero’s superb Mountains/Forests, which showcased the duo’s tangible musical chemistry.  Having tested the water with that project, JT and Alli return with Birds Of Chicago, both album title and band name, which features a dozen new songs, mostly from the pen of JT (Jeremy Lindsay) with a couple written by Allison, each featuring their distinctively soulful combined voices, both of which effortlessly melt into the fabric of each of the compositions.  The combined overall sound, peppered with contributions from many of the associated musicians in the JT and the Clouds and Po’Girl camps, collectively referred to here as the ‘Circus Family’, is not easily categorised; its funky rhythms, gospel choruses, country roots flavoured Americana and hot guitar solos all making for a richly textured whole.  The whistled intro to Russell’s sublime “Before She Goes” is as relaxed as the vocal performance that follows, a signature Po’Girl sound, but with that additional JT and the Clouds soulfulness.  Not only does Alli contribute one of the most mellow songs on the album, she also provides a celebration of Carnival rhythms in the French language “Sans Souci”, literally meaning ‘carefree’, with the ukulele-led song calling us all to the dance floor.   While the waltz-time Galaxy Ballroom keeps us on the dance floor temporarily, albeit in a more intimate setting, the infectiously spirited “Sugar Dumplin’” offers a contrasting Cajun-inspired backdrop, which provides the album with an optimistically uplifting angle.  If “Old Calcutta” asks some of life’s burning questions, with equal measures of light and shade, the Birds of Chicago’s maiden flight wouldn’t be complete without the inclusion of JT’s ode to home in “Humboldt Crows”, which possibly provides the true heart of the album.

Rob Heron and the Tea Pad Orchestra | Money Isn’t Everything | Album Review | Self Release | 30.12.12

Once the shrink-wrapping is off the jewel case of Money Isn’t Everything, it’s almost like being transported back in time to the 1930s, with an authentic looking ‘race records’ type record label and several sepia shots of what looks like a very young band who in different costumes would probably look more like your current standard boy band.  When the music kicks in however, Rob Heron and The Tea Pad Orchestra really do crush any previous boy band notion and deliver a set of Hot Club worthy gems, all self-penned originals except the opener, Danse De La Limonade complete with French count-in, and written by Louisiana Cajun stalwart Leroy Broussard.  With a voice reminiscent of Blind Willie McTell, Rob Heron along with his Tyneside-based seven-piece band incorporate everything from Cajun, Western Swing, Gypsy Jazz, Hokum Blues and Ragtime, demonstrating at the same time that rare ability to make music from a different era sound as fresh and exciting today.  If this band doesn’t have 2013 festival audiences on their feet before the first number is through, I’ll eat my fedora!